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ICANN responds to Ukraine demand to delete all Russian domains

Even if we wanted to, which we don't, we can't, so we won't, says boss

ICANN on Wednesday rebuffed a request from Mykhailo Fedorov, First Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, to revoke all Russian web domains, shut down Russian DNS root servers, and invalidate associated TLS/SSL certificates in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Fedorov made his request because Russia's assault has been "made possible mainly due to Russia propaganda machinery using websites continuously spreading disinformation, hate speech, promoting violence and hiding the truth about the war in Ukraine."

In a publicly posted reply [PDF], Göran Marby, CEO of ICANN, said his organization is an independent technical body charged with overseeing the global internet's DNS and unique identifiers and must maintain neutrality.

"ICANN is a facilitator of the security, stability, and resiliency of these identifiers with the objective of a single, global, interoperable Internet," said Marby.

"In our role as the technical coordinator of unique identifiers for the Internet, we take actions to ensure that the workings of the Internet are not politicized, and we have no sanction-levying authority. Essentially, ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working."

Moreover, Marby said ICANN does not have the authority to do what Fedorov asked.

"For country-code top-level domains, our work predominantly involves validating requests that come from authorized parties within the respective country or territory," Marby wrote. "The globally agreed policies do not provide for ICANN to take unilateral action to disconnect these domains as you request."

The root server system, he said, is maintained by independent operators. And ICANN does not have the ability to revoke the mentioned TLS/SSL certificates.

The RIPE Network Coordination Center also cited the need to remain neutral in its reply on Tuesday.

However, CENTR, the Council of European National Top-Level Domain Registries, did choose a side. The Belgium-based non-profit, which focuses on legal, administrative, and technical policies and best practices for ccTLD registries, on Tuesday suspended the membership of the Coordination Center for TLD .RU/.РФ – administrator for those ccTLDs.

"The CENTR Board is following Russian military actions in Ukraine with concern and strongly condemns the violation of international law and Ukraine’s territorial integrity," the group said in a statement posted to its website. "Ukraine’s national TLD registry is a member of CENTR and we stand with Ukrainians in their efforts to resist Russia’s invasion."

The long game matters

This is a symbolic gesture as it does not prevent Russia's ccTLDs from functioning. The Coordination Center's status, CENTR said, will be considered at the CENTR General Assembly meeting later this month.

Milton Mueller, professor at Georgia Tech and director of the Internet Governance Project, emphasized the need for neutral infrastructure in a blog post on Tuesday that challenged Fedorov's disconnection request.

"Despite our strong opposition to Russia’s war, and our support for punitive sanctions targeting Russia’s capacity to sustain military operations economically, this proposal is misguided and dangerous," he wrote. "It strikes at the very basis of the neutral administration of naming and numbering registries that is required to make global communications fair and accessible to everyone."

For ICANN to intervene would undo the foundation of the internet and invite a variety of bad outcomes, he argues.

"Current calls for instantly bending the entire Internet governance regime to momentary outrage about Russia are more about posturing than effective responses to Russian aggression," he wrote. "These efforts to appear virtuous in opposition to a clear evil can inadvertently do long term damage to human rights."

Yet for those in Ukraine facing what is quite literally a mortal or existential threat, such arguments fail to satisfy. On an ICANN mailing list, Oksana Prykhodko, director of European Media Platform (an online NGO) and a member of ICANN's European Regional At-Large Organization, asked, "Nuclear bombing of Ukraine – will it be enough to change your neutral position? Will try to record bomb alert in Kyiv just now and to send you."

The Register spoke with professor Mueller and asked whether there are any circumstances in which neutrality might become untenable, citing the remarks attributed to the late South African theologian and human rights activist Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

"I think that is a bit of a manipulative framing," Mueller said. "Nobody is neutral about Russia vs. Ukraine. The value of having neutral administration of global internet identifiers is extremely important for everybody and you don't press those neutral institutions into the service of a political objective of a particular nation."

Mueller cited observations made by others that no one has asked the ITU to revoke Russia's country code for the global telephone number system. That's because, he said, we've decided it's better not to weaponize the phone system.

Asked whether the potential threat of nuclear weapons changes the equation, Mueller said, "If the world is headed for a nuclear war, then Russian domains are the last thing we need to worry about. We need to be deterring nuclear war." ®

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