Kicking Russia Off the Internet Is a Really Bad Idea

Ukraine has asked ICANN to suspend Russian internet domains. Experts say it would only hurt Russian citizens—and be disastrous for everyone else.
Janus Rose
New York, US
Racks of servers at a datacenter in Russia.
Bloomberg / Getty Images

Nations and private companies around the world are continuing to take action against Russia amidst the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In the week since the attacks began, the Russian government and its wealthy oligarchs have been the target of international sanctions that have cut them off from financial institutions and other services. 

But one recent proposal has experts worried that some efforts to curtail Russia’s internet presence could be disastrous—both for everyday Russian citizens and the internet as a whole.

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On Monday, the Ukrainian government sent a letter to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the US-based nonprofit organization that manages the distribution of internet domain names. The letter, which is addressed to ICANN president and CEO Goran Marby, effectively demands that the organization suspend Russia from the internet’s domain registry system—specifically asking that it “permanently or temporarily” revoke top-level domains (TLDs) issued to the Russian Federation, including .ru, .рф, and .su.

Ukraine also asked ICANN to assist in revoking SSL security certificates issued for those domains, and to shut off Russia-based DNS root servers—the internet nodes responsible for routing requests to websites located within a given region. In other words, that would mean shutting out Russian internet users by removing their ability to resolve internet addresses from within Russia.

“All of these measures will help users seek for reliable information in alternative domain zones, preventing propaganda and disinformation,” wrote Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov, in the letter.

But internet infrastructure experts quickly shot down the idea, pointing out that while politically palatable, these moves would mostly affect average Russian citizens trying to access information outside of Russia—thus making the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts more effective. It also likely wouldn’t affect the Russian government or its military operations at all, they said, since its information warfare capabilities include being able to route around internet blockages and interruptions with relative ease.

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Frederic Jennings, a cybersecurity lawyer based in Brooklyn, said that going forward with the proposal could set a lasting precedent while delivering little actual benefit in the long term.

“Asking ICANN to remove .ru TLDs or take action against Russian internet traffic is like asking Rand McNally to remove Russia from the map—perhaps ethically defensible, but practically absurd and counter-productive,” Jennings told Motherboard. “ICANN is in no position to affect the Russian state or its leadership, but its action could, and would, harm innocent Russian civilians for no reason other than their use of a .ru domain or their presence in Russia. Not only would it undermine ICANN's legitimacy as a standard-setting body, but it would bring further harm to those least responsible and least deserving of punishment.”

Others warned that the measures could have future negative effects on the politics around internet infrastructure. It could also make Russian internet users more susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks that target passwords and banking credentials, said Bill Woodcock, the executive director of the internet infrastructure organization Packet Clearing House.

“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 top-level domains,” Woodcock wrote in a Twitter thread responding to Ukraine’s ICANN letter. “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.”

Ukraine’s proposal is the latest attempt to limit Russia’s internet presence in response to the attacks. In the days following the invasion, many Russian OnlyFans users reported having their accounts briefly suspended—with the company later reporting that they had been reinstated. More recently, major platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok announced that they will begin blocking sites controlled by the Russian government, including state-sanctioned media outlets RT and Sputnik. 

But attempts to go deeper by meddling with the internet’s core infrastructure have rightfully worried many experts, who emphasize the importance of net neutrality and see the compliance of standards groups like ICANN as unlikely. 

RIPE NCC, a regional internet organization in Europe with functions similar to ICANN, responded to Ukraine’s letter in a statement emphasizing the need for neutrality among internet operators.

“It is crucial that the RIPE NCC remains neutral and does not take positions with regard to domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war,” the organization wrote in a statement. “Failure to adhere to this approach would jeopardise the very model that has been key to the development of the Internet in our service region.”