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Why We Can’t Disconnect Russia From the Internet

March 14, 2022, 8:00 AM

While the rest of the world is busy sanctioning Russia, there’s one sphere where the country’s interests appear to be safe: the internet.

Russia’s prowess in using the internet to conduct information operations is world-renowned. Like removing Russia from the SWIFT financial system, a ban from the internet could both serve as a sanction and deny Russia a means for prosecuting the war. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s viceprime minister, made just such a request on March 2.

So why aren’t world leaders talking about how to remove Russia from the internet?

The short answer is that they can’t.

Authority Ceded to ICANN

As a result of an effort led by the U.S., control over the internet—or rather the addressing system that largely defines the internet—has been ceded to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Although ostensibly created by world governments, ICANN is not an agency of those governments, nor is it accountable to them in any meaningful way.

Many are familiar with ICANN because of its role as steward over the internet’s domain names. ICANN accredits domain name registrars—the people you pay to keep your domain on the internet. It also establishes top-level domains such as .com, .us, and .beer, and it is responsible for resolving disputes over domain names, which is why madonna.com does not point to an adult entertainment website, although, given Madonna’s oeuvre, the line is admittedly thin.

Fewer are familiar with ICANN’s governance structure, which is understandable given that it is almost impossible to describe without a jargon dictionary. ICANN operates using a “multistakeholder model” that appears to be largely circular.

The ‘Empowered Community’

Most of ICANN’s board of directors are selected by the organization’s “Empowered Community,” as nominated by a variety of committees and organizations, all but one of which are internal to ICANN itself. The members of the Empowered Community are determined by ICANN’s constituent organizations, which are mostly made up of participants in the internet ecosphere, including academics, consultants, and employees at tech firms, such as Google or domain registrars such as godaddy.com.

One nonvoting liaison member of the board is chosen by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which is made up of representatives of world governments and international organizations. The GAC also appoints one member of the Empowered Community, which gives the entire collection of world governments one vote of out five, which is already too much for some.

The governance of the SWIFT financial transaction system, by contrast, seems a picture of global political accountability. SWIFT was not designed to be a political instrument, and it is accordingly run by banks, not governments. SWIFT’s board is elected by shareholders, and, more saliently, SWIFT is overseen by the G-10 central banks.

The degree to which each central bank answers to the governments of the G-10 countries varies, but it is fair to say that the central banks are more attuned to the geopolitical order than either ICANN’s board or ICANN’s Empowered Community.

A Failure of Design

One might lament the inability of the United Nations to mount a meaningful response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a failure of practice, but ICANN’s failure is one of design.

As ICANN’s President and CEO Göran Marby explained in response to Ukraine’s request: “ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working.” In his letter, Marby describes ICANN as “an independent technical organization,” and explains that “we maintain neutrality,” but that is a misleading statement. ICANN may have technical control over aspects of the internet, but ICANN itself is far from merely a technical organization and its neutrality is relative to its own policy preferences.

Many aspects of ICANN represent policy choices, such as ICANN’s structure (decentralized and politically unaccountable), choice of decision-making process (consensus), and its committee and group composition (which is carefully organized to maintain a particular kind of balance). Nor is ICANN neutral as to many policies, such as to whether someone other than Madonna can use madonna.com to post their content on the internet.

Political Consequences

These are all decisions with political consequences, and citing neutrality denies that neutrality itself is a political, not a technical, decision. That became clear last week, when Switzerland set aside its longstanding tradition of neutrality to freeze the assets of Russian leaders.

Neutral access to the internet for both the aggressors and defenders in this war might be the right policy, but it is a sophistry to suggest that it is a technical rather than a political choice. I think most would respond to Ukraine’s request by arguing that it would either be wrong or misguided to remove Russia from the internet.

I agree with that sentiment—it would do more harm than good to prevent access to the internet through Russian domains. (There is the additional question of what it means to “remove” a country from the internet.)

But those responses miss the point. The question posed by ICANN is not whether we should remove Russia from the internet, it’s whether it should be possible to do so.

The larger concern with ICANN is not its purported neutrality but its design, which replaces accountability to the population of the world, as organized by governments, with accountability to the world of technology interests, as organized by ICANN.

In the heady early days of the internet, the U.S. approach to internet governance was privatization to encourage competition and to open the internet to world commerce. Those are laudable goals, but ceding regulatory authority over what is a primary means of global communication and commerce has other consequences, too—consequences that nations are only now beginning to realize.

The internet is no more neutral a resource than are banks, petroleum deposits, or overflight rights. Internet governance is an inherently governmental task, and governmental tasks should not be delegated to unaccountable corporations, even ones as seemingly well meaning as ICANN.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Thomas Nachbar is a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he teaches and writes on constitutional law, trade regulation, and national security. He has previously served as a member of an FCC working group on internet security and as a senior adviser at the Department of Defense.