As troops advance into Ukraine, the West has taken steps to isolate Russia for its attack on a sovereign nation.
Banks have been blocked from SWIFT, semiconductor exports have been stopped, oligarchs have been sanctioned, and trade has slowed to a crawl. But one important link still remains - Internet connectivity.
Ukraine's government, desperate to inflict as much damage on Russia as it can, has called on the groups that help the Internet to operate to drop Russian domains and shut down DNS root servers in the country.
Global body ICANN and regional Internet registry RIPE NCC have so far declined to do so, arguing that they must remain neutral and promote connectivity above all else. Such proclamations have been widely welcomed, but there are those that criticize the implicit political stance of these corporate-led bodies.
ICANN representatives did not respond to requests for comment. RIPE NCC declined to comment.
"The Executive Board of the RIPE NCC believes that the means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war. This includes the provision of correctly registered Internet numbering resources," RIPE NCC said in a resolution.
"The Executive Board of the RIPE NCC is committed to taking all lawful steps available to ensure that the RIPE NCC can provide undisrupted services to all members across our service region and the global Internet community."
It is that second statement by the regional Internet registry for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia that has raised eyebrows in some quarters. Being neutral is one thing. 'Taking all lawful steps' is another thing, they argue.
"I think that is a very strange standpoint to take,” Niels ten Oever, Internet governance researcher at the University of Amsterdam and research fellow with the Centre for Internet and Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, told DCD. “It does take a political standpoint.
“To say ‘everyone has the right to communicate’ - what rights are you basing this on? I would argue these are human rights, the right to freedom of expression and access to information, but also the right to safety and security,” he said.
“These are rights that fall to individuals, not to governments. So RIPE is here saying that we should connect everyone, but companies and governments do not have the same rights as citizens. RIPE could devise, theoretically, an approach that would target the Russian government. This would all be within the realm of possibilities, but RIPE doesn't even want to explore this. And that makes the statement very political.”
Ten Oever was quick to clarify that he was not calling for RIPE to take such a move, but rather highlighting how it could - and that by not doing so it was making a decision. And, he argued, it’s a decision that it shouldn’t have to make.
“I think we should recognize that there should be another institutional authority that aligns Internet infrastructure with societal values in the public interest, or that Internet governance institutions should take it upon themselves to develop policies.”
The current makeup of RIPE and similar institutions is geared towards connectivity no matter what. The members are operators of Autonomous Systems (a very large network or group of networks with a single routing policy, deciding the route data takes as it travels the Internet), so they are incentivized to want interconnection.
“The caveat with Internet governance is that the people who have the most interest in interconnection are the people who have the biggest say in it, and they will therefore not implement any measure that might limit interconnection,” ten Oever said. “And so here you have a bit of a catch-22, that if you want to align the Internet with societal values, it will be very hard to do that with people that are mainly interested in creating increasing interconnection.
“And maybe that's not bad - but then we should understand that Internet governance is simply doing that. And then you have other institutions that cover human rights in the public interest. But you can't have both."
The current push for Internet governance organizations to control the web’s makeup is simply deregulation, he argued, with corporations assuming control in the place of governments. “When push comes to shove, however, they do not want to take responsibility and use all kinds of argumentation to do so where they are clearly out of their depth.
“I would argue that this is, in the end, detrimental for Internet governance, because that invites government regulation.”
Ten Oever is not alone in his view. "I too struggle with RIPE's logic. We are citizens of humanity, not the Internet," Eliot Lear, former board member of the Internet Architecture Board at the Internet Engineering Task Force and Cisco principal engineer, said on Twitter (speaking in a personal capacity).
But the wider networking community overwhelmingly supported RIPE's statement, saying that any action would go against the open principles of the Internet and potentially give the power to disconnect countries to fickle governments. It may also be a slippery slope that could speed up the balkanization of the Internet.
Russia is already working on being able to isolate itself from the Internet, and is building its own DNS alternative. But such efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
Were RIPE or ICANN to take action, it could cripple Russian connectivity - either for the government, or the nation as a whole.
Ten Oever does not criticize their decision not to do so, accepting the community's reservations. But he criticizes the fact that they, a collection of corporations with the incentive to push connectivity, are the ones allowed to make the decision.