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Defeating Digital Perseus: 2022 Version

2022 was a tough year for the Internet. Digital Perseus came out in full force to fragment the Internet, to stop unfettered access and sometimes even friends turned into Digital Perseuses. But overall, it has been a productive year for Digital Medusa. Despite all the trouble and barriers that Digital Medusa faces, this year was filled with exciting projects. 

Sanctions and the Internet

We have been dealing with sanctions and their effect on the Internet for years. Ordinary users of the Internet in sanctioned countries,sanction regulators and those who have to comply have been struggling. As Digital Medusa had done some work on Iran and Afghanistan on sanctions, it made sense to make it an agenda for 2022 as mentioned in Digital Medusa’s last year blog. Little did we know that sanctions became the talk of town and everyone would want to get involved with it one way or another due to the unfortunate barbaric war Russia started in Ukraine. Then the Iranian uprisings happened and more sanctions ensued. As Internet governance organizations and other service providers on the Internet are increasingly dealing with sanctions imposed on many countries, RIPE NCC funded Digital Medusa to undertake some preliminary research on the effect of sanctions on access to the Internet. Read more about the projects and progress here.

Christchurch Call and Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism

Digital Medusa was more active this year as a member of CCAN (a network that provides advice to governments about handling terrorist, violent extremist behavior, attending the multistakeholder leaders summit as well as writing a report about the human rights impact of crisis protocols during terrorist attacks with an online angle. 

Human Rights Impact Assessment: DNS Over HTTPS (DoH)

The DNS over HTTPS is a protocol that brings privacy to Domain Name System queries. Taraaz and Digital Medusa got involved with a project that assessed the human rights impact of a product that used DNS over HTTPS. Our partners plan to publish this report in the coming months.

United Nations and Internet Governance Syllabus

The Internet Governance Forum at the United Nations commissioned Digital Medusa to do an Internet Governance syllabus as a guide for Internet governance educators. The syllabus can be found here.

Digital Medusa is an organization

I promised Digital Medusa won’t remain a one woman show and I more or less made it happen: GEORGIA EVANS has finalized a report on how Canada upholds its Christchurch Call commitments, ZHENYE (RYAN) PAN helped with mapping the actors in sanction and Internet space and attended the workshop on sanctions at the IGF. LAURA VUILLEQUEZ did some preliminary work on sanctions and the Internet literature review and mapped the European Trust and Safety actors.
ANGIE OREJUELA has helped with so many aspects of preparing and presenting the research update regarding trust and safety and Internet and sanctions and RITHIKA SHENOY works on the humanitarian aspect of access to the Internet and has co-authored a few funding proposals with us. Working with the other Medusans was the best part of 2022. Their ideas, their enthusiasm and words of encouragement got us where we are at.

Future

In 2023, Digital Medusa will continue to protect the core values of our digital space: interconnectivity, interoperability, security and the global and open nature of the Internet. We will do so by promoting decentralization of the Internet, increasing access to the global Internet especially during crises and contributing to governance mechanisms that help connectivity and trust and safety. In order to do that, we will vigorously work on and provide a few services in 2023: 

  1. Outreach and engagement: hopefully Digital Medusa will continue with Digital Trust and Safety Partnership’s outreach and engagement but will try to provide this aspect as a service

  2. Research and impact assessment: we will provide various governance impact assessment analysis and do research on the Internet stack.

  3. Policy and advocacy: we will promote policies and work with various vulnerable communities around the world who do not have access to the Internet or are in crisis such as Afghanistan and help them be connected and use the Internet to have access to essential services and education. 

Dear Digital Peruses

2022 was only the beginning of Digital Medusa. Despite your every effort in weakening the Internet and Internet governance organizations, the Internet is here to stay: “Don’t ever say it’s over if I am breathing”. 

Peering and Sanctions

Farzaneh Badiei and Angie Orejuela

When individuals want to use services on the Internet—for example, browse a website or send an email—various networks handle these requests. The requests go through networks in the form of packets, and that makes up what we call Internet traffic. Network operators are in charge of carrying this traffic. Through Internet peering, networks agree on helping one another to handle the traffic.
Economic sanctions can potentially impact actors involved with Internet peering. In this blog, we outline the potential impact of sanctions on Internet peering and the various actors involved. This piece is a work in progress, and as a part of the SancNet project, we are always open to feedback, corrections, and additions. A link to an online form for feedback can be found here and in the concluding remarks of this blog.

Revocation of membership from Internet Exchange Points/De-peering
When specific sanctions apply to individuals with formal roles in telecommunication services (for example, the CEO of a telecom operator), the Internet Exchange Point subject to the sanctions regime in question, will have to terminate the network operator’s membership. This‌ can have the following consequences:

  • De-peering has consistently been recognized as an extreme step, as it means customers might not reach specific sites on the Internet. (Werbach, Kevin. “Only connect.” Berkeley Tech. LJ 22 (2007): 1233.)
  • If the network operator is large and serves smaller network operators, those network operators are also affected. This will affect the quality of access and create latency. Some argue (as reported in  Russian state-owned media) that it does not impact their services. Such network operators claim they can have access to global traffic through Asia. But there are restrictions. For example, it is difficult to peer with Chinese operators due to their domestic restrictions on Internet traffic.
  • Network operators that are sanctioned might carry Internet traffic of other non-sanctioned countries. In such a case, the sanctions (and revocation of membership from IXPs) can affect other network operators based in other countries.
  • When revocation of membership from a well-established Internet Exchange Point happens, the individual members of that exchange point will likely stop peering with the sanctioned network bilaterally.

Peering and Sanctions in the US and EU
In the US, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in its FAQ, has clarified that sanctions in case of peering do not apply to the Cuban telecommunication operator. This is because of a specific regulation that authorizes “the exportation, reexportation, directly, or indirectly to Cuba of services incident to the exchange of communications over the Internet.” (31 CFR (Electronic Code of Federal Regulation) § 515.578 Exportation, reexportation, and importation of certain internet-based services; importation of software.)

For peering and transit in the EU, some advocated an “Internet carve-out” from EU 269/2014 that would blunt the effects on the Internet. The council adopted an amendment decision and inserted Article 6c, which provides that

“Article 2 shall not apply to funds or economic resources that are strictly necessary for the provision of electronic communication services by Union telecommunication operators, for the provision of associated facilities and services necessary for the operation, maintenance and security of such electronic communication services, in Russia, in Ukraine, in the Union, between Russia and the Union, and between Ukraine and the Union, and for data centre services in the Union.”

While some interpretations might make this amendment applicable to peering, other perspectives might differ. Legal counsels might argue that this Internet carve-out is not specific enough to include all the services, including transit and peering. Also, because peering usually involves many jurisdictions, providing carve-outs for just one or two countries (like the case of Cuba) or even a region does not solve the problem.

Cache Servers
Cache servers are a means by which much of the most popular content available on the Internet is always “close” in a network sense. These services enable the web, in particular, to satisfy enormous demands. Cache servers do not necessarily serve a peering function, but they are essential for cloud providers and peering locations, as well as for the quality of access to the Internet. They are even sometimes critical for having meaningful access to the Internet. A cache server temporarily stores information on a local network, making browsing faster. Cache servers are usually installed in data centers, ISPs, and peering locations. Trade restrictions, export, and import controls, and sanctions could impact the availability of these servers. There were two reported cases of Google shutting down its caching servers in two Russian ISPs. Google (reportedly) stated that the reason was a change in legal practices and compliance with sanctions. There are reports about Cache servers being unavailable in Afghanistan as well.

The Transborder Effect of Sanctions
Sanction regimes are designed in a way that could impact and apply to third parties that are not in sanctioned and sanctioning jurisdiction. This can especially apply to network operators that are located in areas with neighboring sanctioned countries.

Concluding Remarks
These are only a few preliminary and potential findings about the effect of sanctions on the operation of Internet Exchange Points and the provision of peering. If you would like to reach out and tell us about the problems you have faced, please do so by filling in this form. You can remain anonymous.

Sanctions and the Internet: Project Update 

Farzaneh Badii, Angie Orejuela

Introduction

A few months ago, RIPE NCC announced that they have commissioned Digital Medusa to undertake a research project based on the issue of sanctions and the Internet. We aim to include the RIPE community for consultative insights that the design of the projects will benefit from. More details about SancNet can be found on Digital Medusa. This blog discusses the direction of the project and briefly discusses future endeavors. We welcome input on what can be added or redirected in this study. We will also do a presentation about the project next week during a BoF session in Belgrade, Serbia. We look forward to seeing you in person or online. The session will take place on Tuesday, 25 October, from 17:30 to 18:30 (UTC+2).
To date, we have been conducting mixed research methods for the project. These include desk research and interviews with industry, operators, and policy actors. We plan on undertaking 10 to 15 interviews, and have completed 5 so far. If you want to talk to us about sanctions and their impact on your work, please reach out to Digital Medusa. In addition to conducting formal interviews, we hope to collect your feedback on the design and other aspects of the project.

Below is an outline of the work so far:

Scope

There are various types of sanctions that are usually imposed by nation states on specific nation states or certain activities (which includes sanctions on non-state actors). Sanctions include: trade restrictions (or more broadly economic sanctions), travel bans, the freezing of assets and arms embargoes. The focus of this research is strictly economic sanctions, because those are the primary kinds of sanctions that affect Internet resources. We also focus on access to critical properties of the Internet, specifically access to IP addresses. While we might learn from other compliance and policy practices related to other Internet services, our focus is primarily on access to IP addresses.

A brief history of sanctions related to the Internet

While the history of anything that can be called “sanctions” is long, the sanctions regimes that are common today derive mostly from ideas that emerged around the time of World War I and that were refined during the Cold War. The United States in particular embraced sanctions in an effort to confront political developments contrary to its interests and as an alternative to direct military engagement.
For better or worse, the Internet was largely designed to disregard jurisdictional borders. In keeping with that, nations and even regions were mostly ignored when allocating numbers and talking to other networks. Since the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority in particular (in the person of Jon Postel) was based in the US, this was a decision of some consequence, as every decade the US list of sanctioned countries expanded. It was not possible to have a global interconnected network based exclusively on US relations with other nation states. By 1990 it was already clear that handling all number registrations in a single registry was not able to keep up with the growth of the Internet, and the Internet Activities Board recommended to the US Federal Networking Council that mechanisms of delegation be embraced.  By 1993, the emergence of regional allocation authorities was already acknowledged, and by 1996 the use of Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) was already a best practice.
In the early to mid-90s, the Internet was still in its infancy, and in the US, it was not even clear that commercial traffic was permitted on the Internet (or the parts connected to the National Science Foundation’s NSFNet). Commercial pressures towards institutionalization were new, and organizations such as the RIRs had to feel their way through the implications of international sanctions regimes. Perhaps the regional division also made it easier for these organizations not to be affected by sanction regimes they were not based in. This, however, did not last long. By the end of the 90s and especially after 9/11, the US sanction regime underwent an evolution. The US Treasury office redesigned the system so that the private and especially the financial sector globally became entangled with the US sanction regime. Read Treasury’s War: Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare by Juan Zarate to know more about that development. Later on, the EU and Australia also put in place their own sanction regimes.
The twin pressures of simultaneous expansion of the Internet, and the expansion of various sanction regimes, meant that inevitably the allocation of Internet resources became subject to sanctions. This sometimes happened directly, as RIRs were unable to provide services to sanctioned countries or persons. It sometimes happened indirectly, as the financial services necessary to pay Internet registries’ service fees were unavailable. It also affected the development and partnership of network operators.

Sanctions Timeline

This timeline is a work in progress. It is evolving as we continue our research and it is not fully representative of all the sanctions instances. We very much welcome your feedback on the timeline as we would like to present something comprehensive and more global in nature at the end of the research project. Click here for the PDF version.

Effect of sanctions on the operation of Regional Internet Registries

Legally, whatever can be categorized as a “transaction” may be subject to sanctions. RIRs’ services can be affected because of the jurisdiction in which they are located as well as third-party service providers’ jurisdiction. At a minimum, the following can be affected:
Inter-RIR transfers
Transfers can be recognized as a transaction and since IP addresses are economic resources, then transferring IP addresses from one RIR to another might face issues because of sanctions.
Payment systems
Payment systems such as banks, credit card companies and financial entities may not provide services to entities that have members from sanctioned countries, refuse to provide service to those members directly, or both.
Software providers
Software providers that RIRs procure to provide services such as dual factor authentication might refrain from providing their services to members from sanctioned countries.

RIRs New membership, assignment, allocation or transfer requests (including End User requests)

RIPE NCC has been clear about the need to undertake due diligence in case of several services that it provides to the members, namely new membership, assignment, allocation or transfer requests.

Inequitable access to number resources because of indirect consequences of sanctions

Using compliance processes, RIRs can do the minimum to stay in compliance with sanction regimes and provide their services legally to the sanctioned countries. However, there is only so much they can do compliance wise. When the impact of sanctions is indirect and entangled with other industries, then inequitable access to number resources might emerge. The inequitable access can happen because nationals of sanctioned countries (that are not themselves the target of sanction regimes) might not be able to register new number resources because banks are not willing to facilitate their transactions. The issue goes beyond that, sometimes countries that are not sanctioned but are transacting and sharing IP blocks with sanctioned countries might be affected as well.

Impact of sanctions on network operators

This category of impact on Internet resources goes beyond RIRs’ mandate but affects the communities RIRs serve. Most network operators want to connect indiscriminately and based on technical considerations such as overcoming latency and not based on nationality, creed, or related matters. It is this value of global interconnectedness that made the Internet global. However, network operators are also institutionalized, and many cannot simply connect with other networks without considering sanctions. Besides, sanctions might impact peering and collaboration among ISPs and Internet Exchange Points. This was evident in the case of Serbia in 1998 and then Cuba. American sanctions against Cuba (combined with restrictive national Cuban measures) stifled the development of networks in that country for a long time. Network operators might also be impacted in “sanction-locked” countries. Countries surrounded by sanctioned countries especially might be impacted because the network operators in sanctioned countries cannot peer with others effectively.

Current and future policy solutions. Tell us what you think

Our study so far has highlighted the following policy solutions to maintain the Internet global and interconnected. At this stage, we are only briefly mentioning each, it is by no means exhaustive and we can change the list based on your feedback. If you would like to add to the list please contact us.

A balanced, transparent compliance process: RIRs (specifically RIPE NCC) have been transparent about their compliance process and the initiatives they took to comply with sanctions but, at the same time, not affect access to IP addresses. However, there are shortcomings in compliance processes in sanction regimes. The list-based approach (which is an effective compliance approach) has affected access to Internet services in the past for nationals of sanctioned countries. But they seem to be still fairer than blanket-blocking a whole country because of sanctions. Investigating various compliance solutions in this space might help with easing access to Internet resources.

Sanction waivers, exceptions and regulations for access to essential properties of the Internet: This is also another approach to seek some relief from sanctions when it comes to access to the Internet. We need to explore the effect of waivers and licenses on sanction relief. There have been some cases in the past where specific licenses and waivers have been obtained for certain services on the Internet which can help us understand how the processes work and how we can use these processes to successfully seek relief.

Convening intra-industry coalition to provide services to facilitate access to critical properties of the Internet: This suggested approach convenes the finance industry and other industries and organizations that have a key role in facilitating access to Internet critical resources to work on their compliance, obtain specific licenses if needed, and undertake other efforts of this nature to mitigate the adverse effect of sanctions on access to essential properties of the Internet.

Changes in governance structure of the RIRs: this might come across as controversial but needs to be discussed. RIRs are regional for historical reasons. If there were technical reasons to prefer geographic distribution rather than using some other criteria, those reasons are not clear in the historical documentation. In the future, should we consider changing RIR’s governance structures, or creating some Internet registries along non-regional lines to preserve access to Internet resources?

Arguing for a global Internet in international fora: another solution for the problem of sanctions would be to build on cyber norms, explore the humanitarian value of access to essential properties of the Internet and draw infrastructural analogies to argue for exemption of RIRs from sanctions in international fora. We will delve into this issue and identify the appropriate fora and the grounds for which there can be exemption or other avenues.

Planning for a public sanctions and Internet database

We want to encourage public accessibility of our findings and are creating a database of current regulatory frameworks, industry actors and approaches that could affect providing access to essential properties of the Internet. In the process of that, we will be identifying and mapping the actors that are involved in the field of sanctions and the Internet: for example we will list compliance regimes, sanction regimes, and different private and governmental actors that may have a role in affecting access through sanction regimes. We will also enumerate key industry actors and their compliance practices which could potentially facilitate or hamper access to numbers resources. We look forward to your feedback on the usefulness and design of such a database.

A multistakeholder summit? the case of Christchurch Call 

Too many summits are high-level, ineffective meetings filled with well-meaning but empty speeches. But the multistakeholder Christchurch Call summit this year differed greatly from the usual UN General Assembly meetings. New Zealand and France used their political capital in this meeting to bring together representatives of different stakeholders to have a discussion about countering terrorism online.To the participants’ surprise, most of the interventions were conversational and civil society was included on an equal footing. 

This blog includes Digital Medusa’s opinions about the summit and the Christchurch Call. 

Background

In 2019, New Zealand and France convened Christchurch Call to Action after the terrorist attack that killed 51, and injured 50, Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch. The horrendous attack was live streamed on Facebook and other tech-corporations’ platforms. 

When the Call was launched in 2019, civil society globally criticized their own lack of presence and complained of being treated as an afterthought. But for the past 3 years, we have witnessed a slow but sustainable change and a move towards convening a true multistakeholder forum. It has become a forum that can go beyond mere lip service, that is genuinely multistakeholder, and that takes part in the Christchurch Call commitments to preserve a secure, open, interoperable Internet while fighting with terrorist behavior online.

The governments of New Zealand and France convened the Christchurch Call Advisory Network (CCAN) which comprises civil society organizations including impacted communities, digital rights organizations and the technical community that aims to defend a global, interoperable Internet. While the role of civil society organizations in other similar forums is often contested and not very clear, CCAN has made real progress towards meaningful participation. It is important now that progress continues beyond just attending a high level meeting with the leaders of the world. 

Crisis Response Management and Internet Infrastructure

During the summit, we discussed the crisis response management and protocols. A lot of progress has been made by various countries to create a voluntary but cohesive protocol management that can also adapt to the global nature of the Internet. However, we increasingly see calls for content moderation at the Internet architecture level (domain names, hosting providers, cloud services etc). A proportional moderation of content at the infrastructure level might not be possible in all cases. Especially during a crisis, we have to be extremely careful with the techniques we use to filter and block access to domains and websites, as it might not be possible to do proportionally. Such techniques might hamper access to other services online. We also need to evaluate the impact on human rights of each at each stage of crisis response. A global interoperable and interconnected Internet needs a holistic approach to safety—one that does not focus exclusively on blocking, take-downs and after the incident responses, but that offers a systematic way of tackling the issues raised by horrific content online.

Researchers Access to Data

Perhaps surprisingly, Digital Medusa deviates from various researchers and civil society organizations in calls for researchers’ access to data. While the Digital Services Act will facilitate such access, I do not believe we have the governance structures in place to validate research, nor to provide the privacy-enhancing structures to diminish abuse of personal and private data. New Zealand, France and a few others announced an initiative that can address this issue while also facilitating researchers’ access to data. The effectiveness of such an initiative remains to be seen, especially as it primarily focuses on fixing problems by focusing on technology.  

Internet of the Future

It is natural to think that, if bad content online is the source of danger, then all that is needed is to remove that content and moderation. But content removal does not on its own bring safety to the Internet. For our future efforts, we need holistic approaches. We also need to work with impacted communities and operators on the Internet. Content removal and take-downs on the Internet can have a major impact on the well being of individuals. Careless removal and takedown can affect access to a host of essential online services and it can also hamper uprisings and information sharing online during a crisis. I hope that content moderation will become only one tool (and not even the most important), and we come up with more innovative ways to deal with governance of our conduct on the Internet.  

 

SancNet

Geopolitical conflicts and wars have been affecting access to the Internet since the Internet became more formalized and in a way, industrialized. This project focuses on “economic sanctions”, their effect on access to the Internet and the value of interconnectedness without discrimination.

Geopolitical conflicts and wars have been affecting access to the Internet since the Internet became more formalized and in a way, industrialized. This project focuses on “economic sanctions”, their effect on access to the Internet and the value of interconnectedness without discrimination.

Because of its history, the Internet and access to it were always affected by geopolitical conflicts and wars. Once it became widely accessible to consumers, however, the Internet became subject to trade sanction regimes in the US and Europe and possibly elsewhere.  There are debates about whether sanctions are effective for changing States’ behavior and what can be effectively sanctioned. As the Internet is a relatively new industrial area, this project proposes to adopt a systemic approach and document how sanctions are currently applied to the Internet, why there have been previous attempts not to apply sanctions to the Internet, whether contemporary problems necessitate application of sanctions to the Internet, and what a desirable outcome might be for sanctions and Internet access in the future.

We will use interviews, desk research and analytical narratives to provide a background on how sanctions have directly or indirectly affected access to the Internet. 

- Policy solutions: considering past sanction exemptions, what are the potential pathways to arguing for policies that can diminish the impact of sanction on access to the Internet but at the same time help governments achieve their sanction goals. 

- Strategies for compliance with sanctions while keeping the Internet global: the research discovers why businesses over comply with sanctions and how the risk strategies can change to maintain provision of services while still being in compliance with sanction rules. 

- Institutional changes: the research will also look into whether we need institutional and governance changes in Internet governance organizations in order to maintain interconnectedness.

Related meetings

Articles

Progress reports

Researchers 

  • Farzaneh Badiei, Digital Medusa 
  • Zhenye (Ryan) Pan, Columbia University 

Funding

This project is being funded by RIPE NCC 

Contact 

https://digitalmedusa.org/contact-2/

The Domain Name Multistakeholder Theatre

At the early stages of the Internet, domain names (example.com) were the point of entry for the majority of people’s online presence. As a result the allocation of these domain names mattered for the Internet. The general public, using the Internet for personal growth and development and citizen journalism cared about their domain names. Small businesses cared as well about their domain name, if the amusing case of armani.com is any indication

1998 saw the creation of a new body that, at a high level, would govern overall the allocation of domain names.  It was called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. For the reasons outlined above, ICANN mattered a lot to the Internet, so its policies affected a large number of people on the Internet. 

That has changed. The Internet has developed such that, while the Domain Name System is ever more important to technical operation, the role of ICANN (while still critical) has been diminished. Most of the time, people’s point of entry to the Internet does not expose them to domain names anymore.* 

Despite this change, some at ICANN still believe that ICANN is in charge of security and stability of the Internet as a whole and believe there is much at stake at ICANN. They also believe that the multistakeholder model that ICANN runs can only be done through bloated layers of processes and bureaucracy. This was evident in the recent ICANN Hague meeting which happened last week. 

For any issue that ICANN has to deal with, it comes up with an elaborate process that involves a wide variety of stakeholders (though it is dubious what stakes some have) and a very detailed process that will take months to operationalize. This was obvious from the re-opening of the issue of Closed Generics, a term for an obscure operational wrinkle where allocation of generic names such as .books to corporations like Amazon is disputed.  While the policy development group did not come up with a resolution on Closed Generics, the Board (instead of making a decision) sent the issue back to the community to make a decision. The community obviously came up with an elaborate process of having a facilitator, a bunch of representatives and so on.  

The problem with having a multistakeholder theater is that it leads ICANN away from its important but narrowly-limited mission. There are a bunch of regulators around the world that want to see things are happening. If ICANN is not doing that narrow, limited mission that it has, then the regulators will regulate. So while it is very gratifying to be transcribed, have high level panels with distinguished stakeholders and talk about issues and reopen them many times, we might have an irrelevant multistakeholder body soon. 

 

*This might be anecdotal but a cursory look at the number of domain name registration (from Verisign report) is indicative of such change: “New .com and .net domain name registrations totaled 10.6 million at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021, compared to 10.5 million domain name registrations at the end of the fourth quarter of 2020.” https://www.verisign.com/assets/domain-name-report-Q42021.pdf we can compare this number to Facebook’s new users which is 500,000 every day. https://backlinko.com/facebook-users, another reason might be that while apps and other Internet services use domain name system extensively, the general Internet user doesn’t use it directly.

How to multistakeholder wash Internet disconnection: On the multistakeholder Internet governance sanction regime

Demilitarization of the Internet is a goal we should all aspire to. This can be done in various ways, such as effective nongovernmental attribution of cyberattacks, emphasizing the importance of bringing in stakeholders other than governments and the military as well as self-governance.

Recently, some have used the awful war Russia has started against Ukraine to come up with a statement and a solution of how we go about imposing sanctions that can demilitarize the Internet and overcome propaganda. I call that statement multistakeholder washing of Internet disconnection. Multistakeholder washing is the process of taking a process controlled by an elite group, and dressing it up in the clothes of multiple stakeholders. The statement about sanctions is a good case study:

1.  Stages of multistakeholder washing 

First step: In order to multistakeholder wash an idea, a limited set of stakeholders— sometimes excluding affected communities, and frequently including people with a lot of resources and power— get together and come up with their own solution. We can call this group the Wise Ones. They do this initial step behind closed doors, to get the statement out; otherwise it will get too noisy and involve too many people. 

Second step: the Wise Ones publish the statement, and use their connections to promote the idea (e.g. ensuring that media outlets have early access)  The Wise Ones also tell everyone that they are open to feedback while shutting down opposing views and at the same time starting to operationalize their idea. These kinds of approaches are not unknown to those who practice multistakeholderism. Including only “insiders” preliminary stages of statements is a tactic that serves to control the process as much as possible.

Some consortiums or other unilateral processes start first as single stakeholder initiatives and later on try to adopt a multistakeholder approach. That is not the approach used here. In this model, the Wise Ones claim they are multistakeholder already. 

Third step: Save the whole world (which most of the time actually means the West). 

2. Who are the stakeholders?

Part of the legitimacy of the Wise Ones depends on a pose of neutrality and inclusion. Usually, the Wise Ones solutions are proposed for highly contentious issues where there is a lot of disagreement. So, the Wise Ones often claim broad legitimacy from unnamed supporters who, unfortunately, cannot name themselves publicly. This step we can call “inclusion of the unnamed”.

In the current example, for instance, we don’t know who the stakeholders are, other than the ones who signed the statement. The ones on the statement are mostly Western, mostly male, and mostly never lived in sanctioned countries, or operated networks there. 

We can see the action of inclusion of the unnamed in a claim that one of the leaders of this statement, Bill Woodcock, made on LinkedIn:

“Ten days and 87 authors, from every part of the Internet governance community… This is how we do multistakeholderism, and ensure that the Internet is not used as a tool of war or oppression.

There are 36 people who have signed this open letter.  We have no way of knowing who the other 51 are. Perhaps they do bring to the proposal the perspective of people who have lived in sanctioned countries and dealt with the result, but the included list of people who did sign on does not give one a lot of confidence. In this case, Mr Woodcock should have clarified every part of the Internet community that they managed to convince to agree with this initiative! We shouldn’t need to wonder why this document came together so quickly. 

3. That unprecedented challenge we knew about for so many years 

A third element of multistakeholder washing is the assertion that the issue being confronted is entirely new, which requires the heroic intervention of the Wise Ones to confront. For instance, in the present case, the document makes such an assertion from the very beginning. It says: “The invasion of Ukraine poses a new challenge for multistakeholder Internet infrastructure governance.”

The invasion of Ukraine does not pose a new challenge for multistakeholder Internet infrastructure governance. This is a challenge that those working on the statement want to pay attention to only now and want to do something collectively only now. Many people raised the challenges that faced the Internet during conflicts and wars. Afghanistan and Syria are only two wars that raised very similar challenges. 

Let’s reframe this sentence to what it really is about. The invasion of Ukraine reinforced this challenge, which triggered the West to finally pay attention to it in a collective manner. It’s good to have people paying attention to these issues, but only if we actually consider that, like the Internet, this challenge has a global dimension and includes more communities than Western based entities. 

4. Adopting tired, old approaches that have been tried and tested and failed

A peculiar element of multistakeholder washing is that it frequently presents, as new and revolutionary, solutions or approaches that have previously been tried and found wanting. This may be because the Wise Ones group excludes too many participants who would have been able to point out the similarity to previous approaches to a problem.

In this case, for instance, the technocrats who make up the Wise Ones claim,

“The effectiveness of sanctions should be evaluated relative to predefined goals. Ineffective sanctions waste effort and willpower and convey neither unity nor conviction.” and “Sanctions should be focused and precise. They should minimize the chance of unintended consequences or collateral damage. Disproportionate or over-broad sanctions risk fundamentally alienating populations.”

Sanctions have to be effective and precise. This is not a unique and ingenious principle. Governmental sanctions were never adopted without predefined goals. (US sanctions had human rights goals in mind.) They didn’t want to be ineffective either, hence they considered fines. There were attempts to be precise too, so they came up with a list. But these lists have historically affected those vulnerable communities oppressed by dictatorships more than the dictators themselves. Those who have worked on the issue have documented this through years of monitoring and observing the situation. Because businesses want to do business, and don’t want to get fined, they automatically act cautiously where sanctions might affect them. This leads to over-compliance with the sanctions, and on the Internet that means the disconnection of whole communities of people. Despite the fact that the US office of treasury emphasized every step of the way that ordinary people should not be affected by sanctions and that the specially designated national (SDN) list was in effect to come up with proportional sanctions to limit collateral damage, businesses (tech and non-tech) just stopped doing anything with the residents of those based in sanctioned countries. Internet companies sometimes even refuse to provide their products to businesses that are not residents of the sanctioned countries but that provide services to such countries. Read more about that here. None of that is a new development, and if there is something truly new in this sanction proposal it is pretty hard to see what. 

5. Only military and propaganda agencies and their information infrastructure are potential targets of sanctions

Another odd element of multistakeholder washing is that the proposals usually make exaggerated promises of effectiveness. Part of the reason that multistakeholder processes can be frustrating is because they include so many participants, which can slow progress. But that wide inclusion tends to make for an effective system because, as the open source software advocates like to say, with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. When an exclusive group pretends to be multistakeholder, the advantage of different perspectives is lost.

In the example of the sanctions proposal under discussion, part of the supposed virtue is the narrow target. But blocking “propaganda agencies” will not lead to demilitarization of the Internet, but to politicization of the Internet. For some, the Voice of America, is a propaganda agency. For others, other countries’ outlets are. What are the parameters to decide what a propaganda agency is? Who decides, and how?

Also, the claim that the sanctions will only target certain entities and networks is naive. One does not even need the experience to see this. Militaries in dictatorships, and especially in sanctioned countries, will use networks of civilians (by force if necessary). They own many channels of communications and sometimes have their representatives in those networks. It was only today that London Internet Exchange announced that it had to comply with sanctions and suspended the membership of two Russian AS numbers that belonged to telecommunication agencies in Russia. This might be because the owners of those ASes were in the legal sanction list. But the disconnection will potentially hamper many more people.  

This is why the “list based approach” never worked when it came to sanctions. Since the powerful in sanctioned countries can navigate around the list, they will not be affected. The sanctions can’t catch the powerful, but they do catch the “small flies” that don’t have the resources of oligarchs or military. 

6. The multistakeholder community is here to save the day

Part of the reason multistakeholder washing is attractive is that the idea of a multistakeholder process conveys a certain kind of legitimacy. In the worst examples, that legitimacy is held up against governments asking them not to impose sanctions! This issue shows up prominently in this principle: “It is inappropriate and counterproductive for governments to attempt to compel Internet governance mechanisms to impose sanctions outside of the community’s multistakeholder decision-making process.”

Governments impose sanctions as a means of implementing their foreign policies. So, sanctions are inherently government action. An optional, non-governmental refusal to interact with someone else is not a sanctions regime. It’s a consumer boycott (in this case a military consumer boycott). Which would have been an interesting regime, and if that is what this group means, they should actually clarify it. 

But learning from the governments’ experiences about sanctions is crucial. Governments have been imposing sanctions on various countries and groups which hampered the access of ordinary people to services on the Internet and Internet infrastructure. You can’t stop them by having a principle that they shouldn’t impose sanctions. And if you provide the governments with a list, governments will add to their sanction list and fine every network that communicates with the sanctioned networks. This is how sanctions work.

The Networks themselves have already been complying with sanctions or enabling customers to comply with sanctions. Networks on the Internet have to follow the laws of the countries they are based in. In fact, Content Delivery Networks and others have allowed for businesses not to serve certain regions or countries and they don’t consult with any imaginary multistakeholder community, because they have to follow the law. The US regularly confiscates domain names because they were owned or related to some military force and had undertaken disinformation campaigns (see one example). What is this multistakeholder community going to do in the future when the US does something like that again, using this new multi stakeholder-approved list? Is that the outcome this group wants? 

The Wise Ones also recommend due process and consensus to come up with the magic list. Due process usually is provided after the fact. This must mean that they will have a list of organizations, IP addresses and domain names and if those people complain, then there will be a process to unblock them. Which is good, but again another tried and tested method that is not efficient nor fair. (you see a lot of “due process” arguments in content take-down that completely ignore the deprivation of access to crucial services to people) What is not well thought out here is how wrongful disconnection is going to be prevented? What are the remedies? These are the fundamental questions that the proposal assures will be solved by consensus among the multistakeholder community. But waving these problems away as a simple matter of consensus is simple wishful thinking. The entire problem of sanctions is a political one of who is to be sanctioned, by whose authority, and with what effect. In answer to that problem, the Wise Ones offer “due process and consensus”. In other words, on the basic central issue, this proposal makes no proposal at all. 

How to move ahead?

Multistakeholder washing creates the illusion of a multistakeholder process when the process is actually exclusionary. It is probably not that surprising that this would be used to build a recommendation for a sanctions regime. For sanctions regimes are inherently exclusionary. They consider nation states as the unit of analysis and if you have decided to sanction some ruling party in a country, you are naturally not going to include them in the discussions. Which is fine, but then your process will not be multistakeholder, you can pick another name for it. You can call it the Networks We Don’t Like!

Many of us agree we need to stop the militarization of the Internet and attempt to demilitarize it. But can we do that with a “sanction regime” and a “list based” approach that can be abused and lead to disconnection of ordinary people from the Internet? The evidence so far would appear to be no, which is what would have been evident to the people who proposed this sanctions model if they had actually engaged the wide range of stakeholders that is a necessary condition to meet all the principles the authors laid out. Businesses, network operators and others are free to take private actions and talk to the networks they like and boycott the networks they don’t. But perhaps it is better to acknowledge that this is not a multistakeholder process and it will not be possible to uphold those principles laid out in the document, i.e. people’s access to the Internet will be hampered. 

 

 

Sanctions, Global Internet Connectivity and Content Delivery Networks

On Friday, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, asked Cloudflare and Amazon to stop serving Russian web resources and protecting Russian services.

He said in a tweet that Ukraine was “calling on Amazon to stop providing cloud services in Russia.” He also said that “Cloudflare should not protect Russian web-resources while their tanks and missiles attack our kindergartens.”

Content Delivery Networks might already refrain from serving sanctioned countries, including Russia. However, sanctions that affect Internet traffic have been under-discussed for a long time. It is unclear so far the extent to which any sanctions have affected CDN services and traffic either destined for or coming from Russia. There is some evidence that CDN “geoblocking” has affected Russian sites. It is documented in an excellent paper published in 2018 that discusses geoblocking and economic sanctions in CDNs by validating the observations through Cloudflare. But sanctions might affect CDNs and Internet traffic beyond geoblocking. 

In this blog I will provide an analysis of how sanctions may affect Internet traffic. These sanctions have been affecting Internet traffic from countries such as Iran, Cuba, Syria and Russia for a while. 

What is a Content Delivery Network?

A CDN is a system of servers located around the globe that facilitate website performance by delivering the content from the closest servers to the users. It provides various services that affect global connectivity through website operators, IXPs, ISPs, web browsers and others. There are different business models that CDNs use and the differences are important in how sanctions affect their services so all the issues I am raising here might not apply to every CDN. 

Content Delivery Networks or CDNs help generally with Internet performance by keeping Internet traffic contained within a geographic area or network. They often also provide security services (by combating DDoS attacks, for example).  CDNs are very often used by even relatively small website operators. Some of them also provide DNS over HTTPS (DoH) resolution services. They are also often used to make mobile apps work quickly and to provide large-scale software distribution (such as when an operating system update becomes available).

It is important to understand that the consumers of CDN services are ordinary users of the Internet, but that those users are not customers. The customers of CDNs are the website operators, software publishers, and so on who pay the CDNs to distribute content. CDNs nevertheless can have an effect on ordinary Internet users. So, we should examine how CDNs might affect various people around the world.

Not serving people in sanctioned countries at all

It is well known to residents of sanctioned countries that some of the cloud services and CDNs based primarily in the US do not directly serve these residents either as customers or as ordinary users. There was, in fact, an outcry about AWS not serving developers from Iran in 2019. Amazon responded about not providing web services to Iranians:

“We comply with all applicable laws in the countries in which we operate, including any international sanctions and other restrictions that may be in place for certain countries,” an AWS spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. “Because Iran is subject to broad trade restrictions, limiting virtually all business with Iran, we do not serve customers in that country.”

It is not true that sanctions limit virtually all business with Iran and sanctioned countries. Sanctions don’t apply to noncommercial and personal communication. But this over-compliance with sanctions can be observed in many places, and affects not only CDN customers but even ordinary Internet users.

Peering policy and sanctions

CDNs generally benefit from peering, and many of them maintain an open peering policy (Cloudflare is one example). An open peering policy means that any other networks can peer with the open peering network, normally without any monetary cost. But while open peering generally includes any network, it does not mean that networks based in sanctioned countries are not affected by the sanctions. In Cloudflare’s case, for example, if peering is also deemed to be a “transaction”, then sanctions might well affect them. Cloudflare’s policy on peering and sanctions is silent as to their view of these kinds of sanctions, but their policy while allowing open peering also allows them to restrict peering or not peer when they desire to do so. 

Enabling customers to block access to sanctioned countries

CDNs allow their customers to decide “what content” is served to “which users”.  In effect, website operators use the geoblocking features to prevent serving users merely because they are based in a certain country. Often, this is used to enforce various content licenses or to conform to distribution restrictions, such as when a video is available in one country but not another. Sometimes, however, site operators use geoblocking not to serve any content to users in sanctioned countries. It’s a blanket compliance with sanctions that is probably not even required by law. But when users are considered as “legal risks” because of their location, then this discriminatory practice is justified internally. Website operators have already been discriminating based on geographical location for years, including against users in Russia. 

Content Delivery Network not serving a certain region or country

A CDN can decide not to serve a country or a region at all because of sanctions. So, it might adopt a policy, for example, not to allow its DoH resolvers to serve IP addresses based in Russia. This would mean that, for example if the Web Browser uses DoH resolvers of that CDN, users of the web browser based in sanctioned countries won’t be able to look up any website on that web browser without reconfiguring the browser. 

Domain and website operators

Cloudflare offers a free tier customer account that helps with better access to services that are not large enough to afford full paid service. Residents of sanctioned countries might use these services (especially since they are free). However, these customers might want to hide their origins not to be blocked from the service, and might therefore use various VPNs to hide their actual origin IP address (because they can otherwise be blocked). But this technique also effectively moves the customer’s geolocated IP address, so such customers might also not be served with the most efficient routing service. For example, if Cloudflare thinks a connection is coming from  North America, it is likely to use a North American server to answer queries. In reality, the customer might be in Russia. As a result, the website might load at a lower speed for the Internet user.

Internet, sanctions and global connectivity 

When it comes to compliance with sanctions, many industries over comply. Services and products related to the Internet, be it the New gTLDs, Content Delivery Networks and other services, are not exempt. But over compliance with sanctions at the Internet infrastructure level can have a devastating effect on ordinary people’s access to the Internet while not having the optimal deterrent outcome on States and their decision-makers. Perhaps we need to rethink the sanction regime for the Internet to keep the Internet global and open, facilitate free flow of information and discuss meaningful remedies during wars and conflicts.   

 

Internet Governance Revenge Fantasy or Helping Ukraine?

To the Internet community:
We must empower Ukraine to operate and defend itself on the Internet, and stop arguing over dubious actions against Russia that don’t even affect the perpetrators of this war—the Russian ruling party.
In this blog, I will tell you why many of the ideas about limiting access to Internet infrastructure in Russia won’t work and won’t be effective.

1. Taking the Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) .RU down
In a letter, the Government Advisory Committee Ukraine representative at ICANN has asked ICANN to remove .RU (Russia’s ccTLD) from the root zone. This means that any of the second level domains in that space (example.ru) won’t be accessible. This is a bad idea:
-This does not ‌help Ukraine’s Internet in any way. Russia is not undertaking the cyberattacks through .RU.
-Ordinary people and institutions that run their domain names in that space will lose access.
-Those who have the economic power (eg.. the government and the oligarchs) can register other second level domains while ordinary people with established businesses might have less access to alternatives.
-It sets a bad precedent that can affect future ICANN actions. If ICANN takes action‌, it should also take action when there are claims against other ccTLDs. The precedent, for example, can help attach ccTLD to those who claim it is an asset and have a writ of attachment against a ccTLD.

2. The Autonomous Systems: lets not respond to the Russians
When ISPs and Internet Exchange Points and other network operators want to talk to each other, they talk through Autonomous System Numbers (ASNs or ASes). ISPs on the RIPE mailing list were discussing whether they should respond to announcements coming from Russian ASes.  Remember that these ASes connect people to the global Internet. So, if Network Operators don’t respond and connect—if‌ these Russian ASes are “shunned”— the shunned ASes will be effectively cut off. Remember, the Internet doesn’t work like a telephone system: sometimes ASes get their connections through connecting to ASes in other countries. It is not all territorial. It is also not so clear-cut to understand which AS is run by the government and which is run by others. And governments, especially autocratic ones, try to have a hand in every private affair. Also, not all parts of the government are providing services in favor of war against Ukraine. Some provide critical services to the population, and they do interconnect with networks outside of Russia to provide those services.
Removing Russian ASes (that in itself is a debatable concept) from the routing table only makes it less efficient for these ASes to communicate. It is unlikely to create a disconnection. It only creates latency for ordinary people who connect through the ISPs.

Ripe NCC Executive Board announced that it will not take any action with this regard. Note that the community can take some collective action on its own. But RIPE NCC Executive Board as an institution announced will not take any action.

3. Root servers  
The Ukrainian GAC member to ICANN requested removal of Russia-located root server instances. ICANN, which operates the “l” root server cluster, has a few root server instances in Russia. So do some other root server operators, and ICANN cannot control them. Even if ICANN shuts down the root servers, other actors root servers can effectively be used. Shutting down the root servers is in any case also not an effective way to disconnect, since Internet service providers in Russia can get access to the root zone in other ways and find other ways to connect. More importantly, in no way does removing root servers from Russia help Ukraine not to be attacked or to have better access to the Internet.

Effective sanctions and punishment can work and should be used to stop the perpetrators of this war. We should wake up from this Internet revenge fantasy that does not help anybody! Instead, let’s help Ukraine’s interconnection and access to the Internet. This is not the time to try and prove our “theoretical” ideas might have some merit!

.ONEWORLD .SOMEINTERNET: New gTLD registries and sanctioned countries

Imagine that you run an organization out of a building. Imagine that the landlord comes one day and says, “Oh I didn’t know you are a resident of country X or dealing with anybody from country X. I have to close this place down right now.” And then you are done. You don’t have an organization anymore. 

This very scenario happens on the Internet. ​​Residents of sanctioned countries cannot register a domain name in some new generic top-level domain space. These new gTLDs (like .MARKET) do not serve residents of sanctioned countries and if the registry finds out that a domain name registrant is domiciled or serves residents of sanctioned countries, the registry will inform the registrant and suspend their domain name. 

You might argue that displacement of this sort happens every day in this world, not just on the Internet. That might be true to a certain extent, but it is still a discriminatory practice. Also, what happened to our “one world one Internet” and “Internet is for everyone” values? Confiscating people’s domains merely because of their nationality goes against the values of the Internet we cherished. But there are solutions to overcome this injustice, if only Internet governance institutions and actors truly want to uphold the value of global interconnectivity. In this blog, I will tell you how we can uphold those values. 

Whose access? 

Note that in this blog and wherever else I talk about sanctions and access, I do not mean at all those entities and individuals that can be found specifically named in lists such as the US OFAC’s specially designated nationals list or similar. I restrict this discussion to the access by the ordinary residents of sanctioned countries. These are people and organizations that are deprived of access merely because of their nationality or place of residence, and not entities and individuals mentioned in designated sanction lists.

A background

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with ICANN, but it’s worth a quick recap. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers coordinates the development of policies around allocation and assignment of domain names at the top level of the domain name system (the “root zone”). One of its core commitments is to provide global interoperability and global coordination (See ICANN Bylaws). While ICANN does not have a direct authority over what is happening outside the root zone, they sometimes have policies that affect things outside the root, because they impose those policies as a prerequisite for permitting entry in the root. For many years, the Domain Name System root (the top-most part of the domain, like “com” or “org”) was stable, but starting in 2001, ICANN started making it bigger. This gathered speed in 2012 with the main round of “new gTLDs”. The new gTLDs had a community developed guidebook that came up with some restrictions and policies about names such as geographic names, names that targeted a certain community, brand names and others. If this seems arcane, it all becomes relevant below. 

Why do sanctions affect access to register domain names? 

ICANN is incorporated in the US and is bound by US jurisdiction, so it must also comply with US laws. But contrary to common beliefs, it does not seem that ICANN’s incorporation under US jurisdiction causes these problems on its own. The problems (to my knowledge) are:

  1) There is inefficiency in applying for and receiving a license to provide services to sanctioned countries;

The Work Stream 2 (WS2) on Accountability working group recommended to ICANN in 2018 to start applying for an OFAC license (after some risk analysis). The license would not have solved all the problems, but at least we would have had clarity on what problems might lie ahead. ICANN has not started implementing most of the work stream 2 on accountability recommendations since 2018. 

  2) One of ICANN’s new gTLD policies creates a direct relationship between registrants and registries. The policy might make the registries liable and increase their risk.

This policy is called Specification 12. It addresses “community” new gTLDs, and it creates a direct oversight role for the registries to ensure they enforce certain conditions on the registrants. Such conditions can include certain eligibility criteria, name selections, and content and use restrictions. (See .RADIO’s agreement for an example.) Because of this direct role, many registries that have adopted Spec 12 prohibit their registrars from serving sanctioned countries. 

When doing research about sanctions, one might form the impression that the sanctions would only affect registries that are based in the US and have to follow US OFAC restrictions. This is, however, not the case. Registries that have adopted specification 12, even in a non-US jurisdiction, over-comply with OFAC. For example, .ASIA’s  Paragraph 11.1 (A) of End User agreement requires each registrar to warrant that it is not “directly or indirectly in or from any country that is subject to comprehensive U.S., EU and or UK export or sanctions restrictions (currently including but not limited to Iran, Sudan, Syria and North Korea)”, “nor [that the registrar] intends to transmit or sell domains to such countries unless specifically licensed for such export.”

  3) Registries’ internal policy 

It is possible that a registry not bound by Spec 12 still adopts a risk-averse policy to avoid transacting with residents of sanctioned countries. The rationale seems to be similar to other tech-companies’ rationale when dealing with sanctions: it is simply too expensive to risk getting fined by OFAC, and it is simply too complex to apply for a license. Even if a firm such as a registry applies for a license, third parties will rarely serve the firm’s customers because the third parties also comply excessively with sanctions. 

The solution?

It seems like the solution lies in discarding Spec 12. This clause in a way is against ICANN’s mission, which is to ensure interoperability of the DNS globally and coordinate the allocation at a global scale. Note that it needs to coordinate the allocation at a global scale, not to eliminate allocation of some domains to facilitate coordination.

Another solution is for ICANN to implement the WS2 on Accountability recommendation, undertake research and apply for an OFAC license. 

When it comes to registries, all we have left is to raise awareness about the issue, and in some instances try and apply for OFAC licenses to pave the way, thereby easing sanctions on ordinary people who live in or are from sanctioned countries.

About The Author

Farzaneh Badii

Digital Medusa is a boutique advisory providing digital governance research and advocacy services. It is the brainchild of Farzaneh Badi[e]i.Digital Medusa’s mission is to provide objective and alternative digital governance narratives.