Over the past week, Ukraine’s government has pressured major tech platforms to rethink how they operate with Russia, and it has been pretty successful.
Social media companies have reduced the reach of Russian state-backed media outlets, for example, and Apple has stopped selling its products and limited some services in Russia.
But now Ukraine is pushing for something even more dramatic and consequential.
On Monday, Ukraine’s government called for Russia to be disconnected from the global internet. It sent a letter to ICANN, the US-based international non-profit that oversees the global system of internet domain names and IP addresses, with a plea.
“I’m sending you this letter on behalf of the people of Ukraine, asking you to address an urgent need to introduce strict sanctions against the Russian Federation in the field of DNS [Domain Name System] regulation, in response to its acts of aggression towards Ukraine and its citizens,” wrote Andrii Nabok, who represents Ukraine on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.
Internet governance experts say Ukraine’s request, if carried out, would effectively sever Russia from the internet, leaving Russian websites without a home. Email addresses would stop working and internet users wouldn’t be able to log on. Russia would suddenly find itself on a digital island.
But those same governance experts are skeptical that Ukraine’s request will ultimately be fulfilled. For one thing, they say, it would set a dangerous precedent that could give authoritarian countries license to make similar demands. For another, it is not clear that ICANN could make such a decision even if many wanted it to.
Besides, they added, cutting Russia off from the rest of the digital world might be giving the Kremlin exactly what it wants: a citizenry unable to access outside information.
Governments such as China’s have sought to wall off their own people from the outside digital world. But Ukraine’s request is unprecedented, according to Vint Cerf, widely considered one of the fathers of the internet.
“It is the first time in my memory that a government has asked ICANN to interfere with the normal operation” of the domain name system at such a scale, Cerf told CNN Business.
“The internet operates in large measure because of substantial levels of trust among the many components of its ecosystem,” Cerf added. “Acting on this request would have negative consequence in many dimensions.”
The letter was first reported by Rolling Stone. Angelina Lopez, an ICANN spokesperson, confirmed to CNN the letter had been received and that officials were reviewing it, but declined to comment.