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Booting Russia off internet could backfire, experts warn


Attempts to lock ordinary Russian citizens out of the internet could leave them more susceptible to home-grown propaganda, as well as eroding norms that the worldwide web depends upon for security and stability, according to experts.

The comments come amid demands by Ukraine that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization based in the US that oversees internet domain names, suspend Russia from its global registry. If ICANN were to accede to the request, the rogue superpower’s top-level domains, including all websites ending in .ru, would be suspended.

Ukraine argued that such a move would steer Russian citizens away from Kremlin-backed disinformation and towards more objective sources of news – a claim that has been hotly contested by experts.

One of these, a cybersecurity lawyer based in the US, told Motherboard that the impact of this would not be felt by the Russian military or government, but rather the ordinary citizen.

“ICANN is in no position to affect the Russian state or its leadership,” said Frederic Jennings, alluding to its successful testing in 2019 of an alternative "national" internet that would allow it to withstand being shut out of the worldwide web. “But its action would harm innocent Russian civilians for no reason other than their use of a .ru domain or their presence in Russia.”

Internet users in Russia are already paying a hefty price for Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, with major social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, already partially or fully blocked, leaving citizens there worried about what is to follow.

Fallout would be global

“This is a bad plan because it would cut the Russian man on the street off from international news and perspectives, leaving them with only what the Russian government chooses to tell them,” Bill Woodcock, head of non-profit internet infrastructure body Packet Clearing House, posted on Twitter. “That's not a great way to decrease Russian public support for the war.”

Moreover, the move would undermine ICANN's credibility as a standards regulator and move the internet away from the neutrality it has depended on since its inception.

“In the long-term, this would set the precedent that small industry associations in Los Angeles and Amsterdam would be playing arbiter in international conflicts, and messing with countries' supposedly sovereign country-code domains,” Woodcock said.

“And if that were to happen, a lot more countries than just China and Russia would secede from the common-consensus internet that allows us to all talk to each other.”

Woodcock added that forcibly shutting down Russian domain names would “violate the cryptographic principles” set down by the Global Commission on the Security of Cyberspace, a research body founded in 2017 in the Netherlands to promote security and stability in cyberspace.

Other observers were starker in their warnings, cautioning that moves to bar Russian domain names wholesale could eventually lead to a scenario in which the worldwide web was permanently divided along geopolitical lines.

"The calls to cut Russia off from the internet are a slippery slope, as the 'splinternet' is the antithesis of how the internet was designed and meant to function,” said Andrew Sullivan, president of the Internet Society. “We must resist these calls, no matter how tempting they may be."

Russians flock to VPNs

And in growing signs that Russians themselves are increasingly afraid of being locked out of the global internet community, sales of virtual private networks (VPNs) in the pariah state have soared twentyfold in recent days.

“We predict that the interest in VPNs will remain at these heights for the upcoming weeks,” said Atlas. “However, if major events continue, we could see numbers ascending even higher.”

Citizens there may be hoping that the VPN’s ability to disguise IP addresses will shield them from any punitive internet measures the West might take, with network provider Atlas noting that sales across the industry began to surge last month after cyber attacks by Russia against Ukraine.

But NordVPN, another provider, pointed out that the rise in demand for concealed networks could be caused by the Russian crackdown on foreign media outlets within its own borders, rather than fears of any Western reprisals.

“Whenever a government announces an increase in surveillance, internet restrictions, or other types of constraints, people turn to privacy tools,” said NordVPN. “We saw similar spikes in different regions, for example, during the protests in Hong Kong in 2020.”

It added: “Most of the global internet is already blocked in Russia, preventing regular people from accessing news and seeing the atrocities of war in Ukraine. This is the main reason why we decided not to block access from Russia to our service.”


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