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Sovereign stack

UA-sunflowers.jpgBut first, a note: RIP Cliff Stanford, who in 1993 founded the first Internet Service Provider to offer access to consumers in the UK, died this week. Stanford's Demon Internet was my first ISP, and I well remember having to visit their office so they could personally debug my connection, which required users to precisely configure a bit of code designed for packet radio (imagine getting that sort of service now!). Simon Rockman has a far better-informed obit than I could ever write.


On Monday, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, sent a letter (PDF) to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and asked it to shut down Russian country code domains such as .ru, .рф, and .su. Quick background: ICANN manages the Internet's domain name system, the infrastructure that turns the human-readable name for a website or email address that you type in into the routing numbers computers actually use to get your communications to where you want them to go. Fedorov also asked ICANN to shut down the DNS root servers located in Russia, and plans a separate letter to request the revocation of all numbered Internet addresses in use by Russian members of RIPE-NCC, the registry that allocates Internet numbers in Europe and West Asia.

Shorn of the alphabet soup, what Fedorov is asking ICANN to do is sanction Russia by using technical means to block both incoming (we can't get to their domains) and outgoing (they can't get to ours) Internet access, on the basis that Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda, disinformation, hate speech and the promotion of violence.

ICANN's refusal (PDF) came quickly. For numerous reasons, ICANN is right to refuse, as the Internet Society, Access Now, and others have all said.

Internet old-timers would say that ICANN's job is management, not governance. This is a long-running argument going all the way back to 1998, when ICANN was created to take over from the previous management, the University of Southern California computer scientist Jon Postel. Among other things, Postel set up much of the domain name system, selecting among submitted proposals to run registries for both international top-level domains (.com and .net, for example), and country code domains (such as .uk and .ru). Especially in its early years, digital rights groups watched ICANN with distrust, concerned that it would stray into censorship at the behest of one or another government instead of focusing on its actual job, ensuring the stability and security of the network's operation.

For much of its history ICANN was accountable to the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce. It became formally independent as a multistakeholder organization in 2016, after much wrangling over how to construct the new model.

This history matters because the alternative to ICANN was transitioning its functions to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, a solution the Internet community generally opposed, then and now. Just a couple of weeks ago, Russia and China began a joint push towards greater state control, which they intended to present this week to the ITU's World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly. Their goal is to redesign the Internet to make it more amenable to government control, exactly the outcome everyone from Internet pioneers to modern human rights activists seeks to avoid.

So, now. Shutting down the DNS at the request of one country would put ICANN exactly where it shouldn't be: making value judgments about who should have access.

More to the specific situation, shutting off Russian access would be counterproductive. The state shut down the last remaining opposition TV outlet on Thursday, along with the last independent radio station. Many of the remaining independent journalists are leaving the country. Recognizing this, the BBC is turning its short-wave radio service back on. But other than that. the Internet is the only remaining possibility most Russians have of accessing independent news sources - and Russia's censorship bureau is already threatening to block Wikipedia if it doesn't cover the Ukraine invasion to its satisfaction.

In fact, Russia has long been working towards a totally-controlled national network that can function independently of the rest of the Internet, like the one China already has. As The Economist writes, China is way ahead; it has 25 years of investment in its Great Firewall, and owns its entire national "stack". That is, it has domestic companies that make chips, write software, and provide services. Russia is far more dependent on foreign companies to provide many of the pieces necessary to fill out the "sovereign stack" it mandated in 2019 legislation. In July 2021, Russia tested disconnecting its nascent "Runet" from the Internet, though little is known about the results. It is

There are other, more appropriate channels for achieving Fedorov's goal. The most obvious are the usual social media suspects and their ability to delete fake accounts and bots and label or remove misinformation. Facebook, Google, and Twitter all moved quickly to block Russian state media from running ads on their platforms or, in Facebook's case, monetizing content. Since then, Google has paused all ad sales in Russia. The economic sanctions enacted by many countries and the crash in the ruble should shut down Russians' access to most Western ecommerce. Many countries are kicking Russia's state-media channels off

This war is a week old. It will end - sometime. It will not pay in the long term (assuming we have one) to lock Russian citizens, many of whom oppose the war, into a state media-controlled echo chamber. Out best hope is to stay connected and find ways to remediate the damage, as painful as that is.

Illustrations: Sunflowers under a blue sky (by Inna Radetskaya at Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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