The Russian-Ukrainian War, since its outbreak on February 24, 2022, tested the global internet’s technological unity against the world’s conflict-ridden diversity. The Russian authorities blocked access to Western social media platforms, oppositional media, and censorship circumvention software to bolster their informational dominance domestically. In their turn, the European Union and global content platforms suspended the broadcasting of Russian state-owned media to preclude the Kremlin narratives from reaching foreign audiences.
During the war’s first weeks, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov embarked on a letter-writing campaign to the CEOs of Western technological companies and governing bodies asking them to sanction Russia (Satariano 2022). Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Netflix, and PayPal were among dozens of Silicon Valley giants and regulators Fedorov contacted. It is unknown what role Fedorov’s letters played in their decision-making, but most organizations the Minister contacted left Russia and/or imposed restrictions on the Russian media and ICT companies.
One of the organizations Fedorov reached was the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a US non-profit that governs some of the global internet’s critical infrastructure. Considering ICANN’s exclusive mandate over the internet’s naming and addressing space – ensuring that users reach the intended website every time they enter its name in the browser – Fedorov asked ICANN to limit the work of the Russian internet segment. The Minister argued that this would curb Russia’s warmongering propaganda to domestic audiences and cyberattacks on Ukraine.
This contribution to the Quarterly Magazine’s Special Issue, ‘Unity and Diversity in Global Internet Governance’, examines the responses to Ukraine’s request among ICANN stakeholders. While most were united in supporting Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty, they diverged on whether and how ICANN should involve itself in the conflict. The episode provides a glimpse of political tensions permeating ICANN to probe the narrative of political neutrality in global internet governance.
Neutrality as Legitimacy: Why ICANN Claims Impartiality
Ukraine turned to ICANN as a uniquely powerful organization within global internet governance (Pohle and Morganti 2012). As the world’s central repository for the top-level domains (e.g., .com and .de) and IP addresses, ICANN is ultimately responsible for translating between alphanumeric domain names (e.g., icann.org) and their respective machine-readable format (126.96.36.199). The entire internet hinges upon the reliability of this seemingly straightforward function: the internet becomes useless if the system doesn’t deliver electronic devices in cyberspace from point A to point B.
Despite ICANN’s non-governmental status, the US government held veto power over the organization’s strategic course for most of its existence since 1998, albeit seldom explicitly used. Other governments are represented at ICANN only in consultative roles. In 2014-2016, in the aftermath of the Snowden Revelations, the Obama administration severed formal ties with ICANN to partially restore US credibility within internet governance (Palladino and Santaniello 2021). Yet, Russia and other critics have continued to view ICANN as an expression of the US digital hegemony based on their shared commitment to the free flow of information doctrine and associated multistakeholder governance model (Pohle and Voelsen 2022).
The free flow of information doctrine holds that data should travel across national borders without restrictions. While advancing access to information as a humanitarian ideal, the doctrine championed by the White House and Silicon Valley simultaneously opens foreign markets and societies to the globally dominant US products, services, and ideas (Kiggins 2015). The current multistakeholder model of internet governance provides a favorable institutional foundation for the free-flow principle. In theory, multistakeholderism is egalitarian participation in decision-making about common goods by all relevant stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil society, technical bodies, and others (Hofmann 2016). Because nation-states don’t enjoy traditional primacy within multistakeholderism, their ability to impede information flows from crisscrossing national borders and otherwise affect the global internet is limited.
The legitimacy of internet multistakeholderism and ICANN as its crux is continuously challenged (Jongen and Scholte 2021). One common criticism is that multistakeholderism is a veneer for maintaining US dominance by having ICANN loyally reign over the global internet’s critical infrastructure while precluding other states from meaningful participation (Powers and Jablonski 2015). To attain wider acceptance in these contentious circumstances, ICANN promotes how democratic its internal and global multistakeholder arrangements are (Stappert and Gregoratti 2022). Defenders of the ICANN-based internet governance status quo frame it as a neutral, purely technical body: If ICANN faithfully represents the multifaceted global society without playing politics, the argument goes, why reform the system?
ICANN Leadership: ‘Within our mission, we maintain neutrality’.
Mykhailo Fedorov’s letter to ICANN asked for three punitive measures against Russia (Fedorov 2022). First, to revoke Russia’s three country top-level domains: the primary ‘.ru,’ the Cyrillic ‘.рф,’ and the Soviet-era ‘.su’. Second, to revoke SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates for these domains. SSL certificates authenticate a website’s identity and enable an encrypted connection, securing online transactions and user information. Lastly, Fedorov requested the shutting down of ICANN-operated critical servers in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Together, the proposed measures were intended to break the spell of the Russian state media over the country’s population. Fedorov’s letter explained that the ‘Russian propaganda machinery’ enabled its army’s ‘atrocious crimes’ by transmitting hateful disinformation about Ukrainians. Without access to Russian sites, he argued, Russian users would seek reliable information in alternative domain zones. Besides this, cutting off the Russian internet segment would stymie Russian attacks on the Ukrainian IT infrastructure.
In response to Fedorov, the President and CEO of ICANN, Göran Marby, sympathized with the plight of Ukrainians but declined their government’s request. Marby explained that ICANN strove ‘to ensure that the workings of the Internet are not politicized’, regardless of the geopolitical situation: ‘Within our mission, we maintain neutrality and act in support of the global Internet’ (Marby 2022). However, ICANN’s equation of non-involvement with political neutrality is misleading, given that principled inaction and deliberate action may be similarly consequential.
ICANN’s decision not to sanction Russia was political in that it was guided by a commitment to the free flow of information and multistakeholderism, representing one of the competing internet governance agendas. As such, Marby rejected Fedorov’s premise that limiting Russians’ online access would facilitate their critical view of the Kremlin’s adventurism. In line with the free-flow principle that information access is inherently valuable, Marby countered that ‘it is only through broad and unimpeded access to the Internet that citizens can receive reliable information and a diversity of viewpoints’. Marby further argued that ICANN’s ‘unilateral changes’ to global internet infrastructure, as requested by Ukraine, ‘would erode trust in the multistakeholder model’. Had ICANN explicitly intervened on behalf of one party against another in a geopolitical conflict, it would have sabotaged its self-legitimation as a democratic organization that acts through internal consultations among representatives of the wider multistakeholder community.
Besides ICANN leadership, governmental and civil society representatives discussed Ukraine’s request, further questioning ICANN’s identity as a non-political institution.
Governmental Advisory Committee: ‘In this case, the Internet is a factor of peace’.
In a stark departure from traditional global governance, states in ICANN play only a consultative role with no decision-making powers through participation in ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) (Cavalli and Scholte 2021). At the GAC meeting days after Marby’s response, eleven national representatives commented on the situation along anticipated geopolitical lines (ICANN 2022b). The Ukrainian representative Andrii Nabok, speaking from Russia-besieged Kyiv, passionately argued that the ‘Russian dictatorship’ was set on destroying ‘the right to the internet’. Nabok urged fellow GAC members to join ‘the sanctions of the civilized world’ and the ‘technological exodus from the Russian Federation, the empire of evil, the terrorist state number one, the fascists of the 21st century’. The Russian representative argued that it was instead Ukraine that threatened free speech by asking ICANN to sanction the Russian internet segment while Russia was ‘doing everything in [its] power to keep the Internet as a global indivisible space’.
The other nine national representatives at the GAC session expressed sympathy for Ukraine, yet none fully backed its request. Ukraine’s Western allies – Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – uniformly decried Russia’s attack as unprovoked, unjustified, and premeditated but sided with the ICANN leadership. Echoing Marby, France justified Western non-interventionism by invoking the free-flow imperative of not impeding global information flows: ‘In these dark times, we need to keep the Internet open and accessible to everyone, including to all Russian citizens who have the right to access free and balanced information on the war in Ukraine. In this case, the Internet is a factor of peace’.
At-Large Community: ‘Neutrality as a response to murder is not neutral’.
Unconstrained by diplomatese, the At-Large Community vigorously debated the issue (ICANN 2022a). In ICANN lingo, the At-Large Community refers to nearly 300 civil society and professional organizations and individuals accredited by ICANN to represent internet users (ICANN n.d.). The At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) is the community’s executive body that provides policy advice to ICANN on behalf of users and, in turn, communicates ICANN developments to local user communities.
The ICANN community supported Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty but was divided on whether humanitarian considerations should prevail over ICANN’s commitment to the free flow of information. Some, like University of Vienna law professor Erich Schweighofer, ‘plead[ed] for neutrality of information and communication infrastructure’ during armed conflict. Others, like internet entrepreneur Antony Van Couvering, were infuriated by ICANN’s ‘threadbare mantras’ about impartiality and argued that ‘[n]eutrality as a response to murder is not neutral’.
ALAC firmly sided with the non-interventionists. The Committee arrived at a ‘strong consensus’ that ICANN ‘shouldn’t be doing anything to mess with the underlying Internet infrastructure and attempt to take sides in that conflict’ (Zuck 2022). ALAC’s support for ICANN leaders over community members fatigued by ICANN’s professed neutrality illuminates another cleavage within ICANN spurred by geopolitical developments: a hierarchical tension between some lay members and their representative body vested with executive powers on the ICANN Board of Directors.
Conclusion: One World, Many Internets
ICANN’s motto is ‘One World. One Internet’. The phrase communicates an ideal of a planetary digital network uniting humanity. As part of this ideal, ICANN leadership cultivates the institution’s image as untainted by outside politics and guided solely by the technological imperative of ensuring a single interoperable internet. Yet even a cursory overview of stakeholder responses to Ukraine’s request to sanction Russia shows multiple internet governance agendas struggling within and beyond ICANN.
Diverse actors will offer contrasting interpretations of ICANN’s ultimate response to Ukraine’s request in line with their preexisting politics. To supporters of the ICANN-based internet governance, the organization’s refusal to retaliate against Russia evidences the resilience of the multistakeholder model: ICANN remained committed to its technical mandate despite immense pressure to get involved in the geopolitical rivalry. For ICANN critics, its unilateral decision shows unchecked monopoly over critical internet infrastructure rather than multistakeholderism’s egalitarian promise: while ICANN abstained in this instance, there’s no mechanism for outsiders to prevent its intervention next time.
As geopolitical tensions intensify, the value of perceived political neutrality in internet governance decision-making will rise. Neutrality will be the currency that legitimizes one’s internet policymaking. If one is perceived as following technological reasoning unaligned with any political powers, their pursuits seem more credible and difficult to challenge. However, technology is inherently political, so global internet politics will become a site of clashing claims of impartiality that mask underlying normative agendas. The task of internet governance scholars is to interrogate such instrumental uses of neutrality by partisan actors critically.
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About the Author
Stanislav Budnitsky, Ph.D., is a James H. Billington Fellow at The Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., focusing on global and Russian media politics. Previously, Budnitsky held postdoctoral fellowships with the University of Duisburg-Essen, Indiana University in Bloomington, and the University of Pennsylvania. Budnitsky’s current book project examines the Russia-West struggle over global telecommunication governance in the post-Cold War era. His other academic writings have appeared in the International Journal of Communication, Internet Policy Review, European Journal of Cultural Studies, and an edited collection, The Net and the Nation-State, from Cambridge University Press. Budnitsky’s recent commentary on media developments during the Russian-Ukrainian War were featured in The Conversation, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, and Poland’s Rzeczpospolita.