ICANN: Human rights law calls for an open Internet at a time of war

ICANN: Human rights law calls for an open Internet at a time of war - Digital

If the request was granted, Mail.ru site would have been one of many domains blocked. Photograph: Konstantin Aksenov/Shutterstock

ARTICLE 19 agrees with the decision taken by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) Board to deny Ukraine’s request to block or suspend Russia’s top-level domain(s). We steadfastly stand in solidarity with Ukraine against Russia’s aggression that breaches international laws, and remain concerned by Russia’s control of the information environment through its censorship and disinformation campaigns. However, we believe that ICANN’s decision not to comply with the request is in line with international human rights law.

On 28 February, 2022, the Ukrainian government’s representative to ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC) sent a letter to the CEO of ICANN, the global non-profit organisation responsible for policies related to the domain name system (DNS), requesting that it block or suspend top-level domains operated from within Russia, revoke certificates that authenticate a website’s identity, known as SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] certificates from the aforementioned domains, and shut down DNS [Domain Name System] root servers operating in Russia.

Compliance with Ukraine’s request for the Russian top-level domains and root servers to be shut down would have blocked access to all websites registered on .ru, .su and .рф domains, regardless of political affiliation. In an increasingly shrinking civic space, this would disproportionately affect the right to freedom of expression, particularly for independent media organisations, civil society organisations, and organisers. Critics of the war that host or rely on these websites would find it harder to disseminate information countering Russia’s disinformation campaigns or organise protests in opposition to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Any action by ICANN to honour such a request by any government or institution would disproportionately harm people in Russia who seek to securely access factual information about the ongoing conflict,” said Mehwish Ansari, Head of Digital at ARTICLE 19.

 

While ICANN’s CEO Goran Marby said that ICANN does not have the remit to revoke specific SSL certificates, the proposal itself is a cause for concern. If carried out, it would seriously undermine security, confidentiality, and trust for all Internet users. Revoking SSL certificates from the associated domains would prevent encrypted connections to websites, creating loopholes for attackers to impersonate legitimate websites and obtain sensitive information of ordinary users accessing critical services such as health and financial services.

While ARTICLE 19 agrees with ICANN’s decision, we strongly question claims of ICANN’s neutrality or that its mission and policies do not extend to restricting Internet access. ARTICLE 19 has long documented ICANN’s role in facilitating human rights online and offline. ICANN previously complied with United States sanctions, which led to websites in sanctioned countries being removed and registrars unable to offer services to residents in those countries. In recent years, ICANN’s ill-defined approach to DNS abuse has resulted in pressure on DNS operators to moderate and censor content at the infrastructure level, posing serious risks to access to information.

ICANN must conduct its operations in accordance with its commitment to the global public interest as set out in ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments and must respect human rights as set out in its by-laws to ensure that its role in managing a critical part of the global Internet infrastructure protects people’s freedom of expression,” added Ephraim Percy Kenyanito, Senior Programme Officer at ARTICLE 19.

 

For more information, contact:

Ephraim Percy Kenyanito, Senior Digital Program Officer: ephraim@article19.org