Russia’s attack on Ukraine has overturned norms that have guided European foreign policy for decades and pushed governments to consider previously unthinkable sweeping sanctions. But the breathtaking speed of action may have unintended consequences for our shared, global Internet, write David Frautschy and Constance Bommelaer.
David Frautschy is the Senior Director of European Government and Regulatory Affairs at the Internet Society. Constance Bommelaer is the Vice President of Institutional Relations and Empowerment at the Internet Society.
Proposals under consideration by governments, service providers and other organizations would mostly harm Russian civilians.
These include pressures on global social media giants to block Russian content to stop “disinformation” from circulating; demands for ICANN to revoke Russia’s top-level domains such as .ru; and operators to cut the physical cables which Russians use to communicate.
These responses would roll out the red carpet for the Kremlin to establish a centralized Internet walled off from outside influence.
In the long-term, the effects will reverberate around the world for decades to come. Sanctions and other decisions that are not well targeted will undermine the Internet’s connectivity and its apolitical nature, splitting it along geopolitical lines and opening the door for further restrictions across the globe.
Many of those contributing to this harm are not even aware of the potential fallout. The Internet will become less reliable, less secure, and less globally connected for every user, and its greatest benefits – innovation and trade, peaceful dialogues, the exchange of ideas for all users regardless of nationality – will be under threat.
The Internet isn’t supposed to recognize country borders. Its very conception is based on it being decentralized.
However, competing visions of Internet governance, with each advancing different regulations and limits on Internet use, have been leading us towards a “splinternet” – separate networks that might use the same names and protocols as the global Internet, but the information you get is only what the government (or a company) wants you to see.
Proposals put forward reflect a profound lack of understanding on what the Internet is, and how it should remain. As the conflict evolves, we risk falling down a path toward a digital autarky of belligerent countries. We cannot allow this to happen.
How do we prevent the Splinternet? There are three foundational steps we can take.
1) Ensure any sanctions leave the Internet intact. Cutting off access in a country will not silence its government or elites, who will easily find workarounds; it will silence ordinary citizens and prevent them from accessing the truth. Sanctions should be designed in a way to protect the population, including their rights to communicate. Critical supplies such as water are never targeted by sanctions. Internet connection must be included alongside these essential resources.
2) Any restriction on access – directly or indirectly – must be universally recognized as violating the founding principle of the Internet as unaffected by political, economic, or technological boundaries. If the door is opened to further attempts to restrict and even shut down access, then what we’ll be left with won’t be the Internet at all. We cannot allow it to become a pawn of geopolitics.
3) The technical governance of the Internet’s infrastructure must remain apolitical – that includes all naming, addressing, routing and security systems. Sanctions cannot be used to disrupt this architecture in any way, and exemptions must be put in place to ensure continued service amid even the strongest of measures.
“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding“. In an era where governments are tempted to erect digital walls, Albert Einstein’s intuition should inspire us to keep essential channels of communication among people of all nations open.
We must protect the open, globally connected Internet. We must hold governments and service providers to account for their actions and educate Internet users on the dangers posed by the splinternet. Safeguarding humanity’s best tool to solve global challenges is everyone’s responsibility, especially in times of crisis.