Thirty five Internet experts on Thursday proposed creating an international committee that could impose targeted sanctions against Russian military and propaganda websites without knocking ordinary civilian sites offline.
Thursday’s proposal — made in an open letter signed by politicians, Internet activists, networking experts, security researchers and others — opposes disconnecting all Russian websites as dangerously broad and likely to impede the ability of ordinary Russians to navigate the Internet. The signatories particularly worry about depriving Russians of news and information at a time when the government of President Vladimir Putin has almost totally choked off the nation’s free press.
“Our principal concern is that the Internet not be used as a weapon against civilian populations,” said Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House and an organizer of Thursday’s open letter.
The letter suggests technical approaches to quarantine some Russian sites from easy online access while not affecting websites for most businesses and routine government services, such as schools and hospitals.
The most promising idea, the letter says, would be to create a list of sites that major online networks could chose to avoid, much as they already deny connections to sites known to deliver malware or spam. But as a first step, the signatories proposed creating a new volunteer committee that would convene soon to consider the issue of possible sanctions against Russian websites and how to implement them.
The letter makes clear the group’s opposition to a request from Ukrainian officials last month asking ICANN, the California-based nonprofit group that oversees the implementation of Internet addresses, to suspend use of Russia’s country domains, which include “.ru” and two others.
Signers of Thursday letter called such a move — which ICANN declined last week — “disproportionate and inappropriate” because of its impact on Russian civilians seeking to use the Internet for routine purposes.
“Sanctions should be focused and precise,” the letter says. “They should minimize the chance of unintended consequences or collateral damage. Disproportionate or overbroad sanctions risk fundamentally alienating populations.”
But the letter says, “Military and propaganda agencies and their information infrastructure are potential targets of sanctions.”
Already, Russian propaganda sources such as RT are blocked in some parts of the world.
Efforts to wall off Russia from the Internet have provoked concern among digital rights activists who have called for protecting Russians’ ability to operate online at a time when their sources of credible independent information are rapidly dwindling.
Even a targeted approach left some Internet rights activists unnerved.
“The creation of a global block list will ignite the darkest fears of those already suspicious of the Internet governance world,” said Peter Micek, general counsel of digital rights group Access Now. “Its legitimacy would be questioned from the start, and only an airtight, inclusive, and open process for proposing, vetting, appealing, and implementing such a list could hope to meet human rights standards.” Such a process would take “years of input into design and testing,” he said. “I have serious doubts that such a blacklist would meet the established, rigorous test for interfering with freedom of expression in the short term.”
Thursday’s proposal envisions what it calls a “multi-stakeholder mechanism” to evaluate whether and how to implement sanctions. That mechanism would create a list of IP addresses and Web domains that would be communicated and updated using the Border Gateway Protocol, which networks use to route traffic through the Internet’s many junction points. Individual networks could then choose whether to deny access to the list of targeted IP addresses and Web domains. A multi-stakeholder approach has been common within the world of Internet governance, especially in the decades since the U.S. government withdrew from overseeing the network it first incubated in a Pentagon program in the 1960s.