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ICANN, RIPE, and ISP War Crime Complicity Exposure

The recent horrific actions undertaken by Vladimir V. Putin and complicit Russian actors against the sovereign nation of Ukraine and its people are widely regarded as war crimes on a profound scale not seen in Europe since World War II. The costs in lives and property are enormous. It has recently resulted in a condemning UN Resolution.

At some point, there will be reckoning for Putin and those who aided and abetted his actions through our domestic and international legal systems. Recently, the Ukrainian government requested that two private-sector corporations—Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) based in California, and the Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC) based in the Netherlands—stop aiding and abetting the war crimes directed against them through the services [ICANN] provide[s] to support the Russian actors. Ukraine’s Minister stated “crimes have been made possible mainly due to the Russian propaganda machinery using websites continuously spreading disinformation, hate speech, promoting violence and hiding the truth regarding the war in Ukraine [and] Ukrainian IT infrastructure has undergone numerous attacks from the Russian side impeding citizens’ and government’s ability to communicate.”

These corporations purport to “govern the Internet.” In fact, they enjoy de facto global and regional monopolies to facilitate address resolver services that assist in pointing users to Internet-based sites, together with providing service providers with network addresses. They are the “middle-men” in a highly lucrative, high-margin business that garners billions of dollars a year and supports comfortable non-profit corporate lifestyles.

The uncaring, sanctimonious response to the Ukrainian Minister was perhaps predictable and directed at shoring up ICANN’s self-anointed stature and product revenue stream. Speaking of the need for “maintain[ing] neutrality in support of the global Internet,” ICANN stated that “our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments of the Internet—regardless of the provocations.” Somewhat incredulously, ICANN asserted that the mission also includes ensuring that “citizens can receive reliable information and a diversity of viewpoints.” Really? Inquiring Minds might ask if ICANN would be taking the same view for Joseph Goebbels viewpoint diversity eighty years ago.

RIPE’s response to the Ukrainian request was similar, asserting that it “believes that the means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war.” Similarly promoting its monopoly status and disdain for law, RIPE asserted the seemingly sole measure was that its products and services are “not negatively affected by laws, regulations or political developments.” Although it promised to “publicly document its efforts,” the request from Ukraine is not available on the RIPE NCC.

As private corporations, ICANN, RIPE and its surrounding community of ISPs can autonomously take these decisions. There are, however, potential consequences for their actions—the most significant being their exposure to litigation and imposed penalties for the harms caused.

Indeed, one would expect that the Ukrainian government and those harmed by Putin’s war machine might bring causes of action—with help from local legal counsel—against these corporations in their legal jurisdictions seeking appropriate remedies and penalties. Indeed, the legislative or executive authorities in the jurisdictions might take similar direct action.

Furthermore, the network services involved are not public telecommunication services enjoying any special treaty status, but private domestic and extraterritorial offerings for which there is legal exposure. The corporations involved are simply private corporations remaining seemingly oblivious to the consequences of the harms caused by their services collectively sold at enormous margins. In the U.S., although not the Netherlands, some of the corporations might try to assert Sec. 230 protection, the level of war crimes being perpetrated in the Ukraine probably changes the exposure equation.

In fact, there is significant, relatively recent precedent for internet-based corporations cutting off the services to nations charged with war crime. The best known occurred after Sudan was subject to resolutions for its war crimes. Thirty-seven examples of major corporations cutting off Sudan’s access to a wide array of internet products and services between 2009 and 2016 were listed by Sudan with the ITU.

The injuries here are not minor torts but a wholesale Russian pogrom against a nation, cultural artifacts, and people that now have the de facto status of war crimes under U.N. resolutions and norms. The dire effects have spread across the region as countries attempt to cope with more than a million refugees. Although the technical nurds in these internet corporations may not understand the legal exposure, their counsel and executive officers should. War crime complicity is among the most abhorrent societal offenses. Someone needs to be held accountable for egregious actions. The legal system provides some available remedies.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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A Bit Over the Top Hans Klein  –  Mar 7, 2022 10:14 AM

Your analyses are generally excellent, and while you raise interesting points here, you exaggerate, too.

You claim there is “a wholesale Russian pogrom against a nation, cultural artifacts, and people.” That is a gross exaggeration.  Russia’s attack is military in nature and is conducted as such.  While there are civilian casualties, there is no policy of deliberate attack on civilians.

You also note that “there is significant … precedent for internet-based corporations cutting off the services to nations charged with war crime.” This is a precedent for private action, not for any judicial ruling.  Since you are warning ICANN and RIPE about the *legal* consequences of their (in)action, you should cite legal precedent.  I gather that there are none.

Without going overboard, one can gain perspective on this conflict by comparing today’s Russian invasion of Ukraine to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  The US invasion had much less justification (Iraq posed no threat to the US, while Ukraine is explicitly aligned with a hostile power, the US.)  And ultimately, the US did destroy lots of civilian infrastructure (water, electricity, and even entire cities,) while Russia is not targeting such facilities (yet?).

The situation in Ukraine is horrific enough without making exaggerations.  Let’s keep ICANN and RIPE out of it, and let’s hope there can be peace soon in Ukraine.

Russian sanction blacklist Anthony Rutkowski  –  Mar 7, 2022 10:44 AM

jurisdictions, e.g., U.S. and EU, to develop a Russian Sanction Blacklist the enables organizations and ISPs to block specific domains and IP address blocks by whatever means they have at their disposal.  Such an action would also provide requisite notice, be carefully tailored, and be enforceable.

The assertion that Putin/Russia is engaging in a wholesale pogrom is not an exaggeration, and reflected in facts on the ground combined with the millions of refugees who are escaping.  It is doubtful whether they would regard it as an exaggeration.  As to the US action, it was not to take over a sovereign nation and was broadly supported.  Putin seems to have no support except for Belarus, North Korea and Syria.

ICANN and RIPE are simply corporations providing de facto monopoly services in jurisdictions where sanctions are imposed.  They either comply or face penalties for non-compliance.  Those harmed by their actions can also bring tort actions.  That’s the way our systems of law work.  If they want to be complicit in war crime, they can incur the consequences.  Indeed, there is a proceeding underway now against Putin just down the road in Den Haag.  A policy metric of “Internet for All” is plainly inane and immoral.

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