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Internet Way of Networking 2 March 2022

Why the World Must Resist Calls to Undermine the Internet

Andrew Sullivan
By Andrew SullivanPresident and Chief Executive Officer

It seems that every time there is a large political event in the world, someone calls for someone else to be excluded from the Internet. The latest call to cut people off comes in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Internet Society must resist these calls, no matter how tempting. The Internet remains our best hope to communicate among the peoples of the world.

The calls to cut Russia off are coming at multiple levels:

  • There is pressure on global social media giants to block Russian content to stop disinformation from circulating.
  • Others think networks around the world should block Russian communication by blocking their BGP announcements. BGP, the Border Gateway Protocol, is the network protocol that allows the various networks that make up the Internet to negotiate their communications—effectively, it is the “inter” part of “the Internet.”  Attempting to convince all the networks in the world to reject some BGP announcements on political grounds is unprecedented.
  • Still others think the physical connections from Russian networks should be severed. It is not possible to communicate through cables that have been broken. Cut the cables, and Russia will be isolated.

These proposals miss something fundamental about the Internet: it was never designed to respect country borders. The idea of unplugging a country is as wrong when people want to do it to another country as it is when governments want to do it to their own.

Internet connectivity means anyone with access can use the Internet to communicate. This means aggressors and opponents alike. Unlike most historical communication methods, the Internet is astonishingly resilient when conditions for connection are bad. It’s not magic. It won’t end wars or invasions. But it is a great tool for humans to use against their oppressors.

The Internet allows people who otherwise would be silenced to speak, so it should be no surprise that there are people the world over trying to undermine the Internet.

Russia has been trying for over a decade, with limited evidence of success (whatever the Kremlin has said), to be able to unplug from the Internet. Some governments impose Internet shutdowns that harm the interests of their citizens and impede economic development, all in the interests of social control. These efforts are not “the Internet with local characteristics,” or any other catchphrase. They’re opposition to the Internet. The Internet puts decisions about connections into the hands of people who want to connect. It’s a frightening idea to those who want to control the messages. But it’s what has made the Internet a resource to enrich people’s lives.

In the present case, even on a basic technical level, it is not clear what a “Russian network” is, or how one would refuse its communication. The Internet’s resilience comes in part from redundancy. There is no hope that every single network in the world will refuse traffic from networks originating in Russia. Indeed, it is almost certain that communications that originate from any government-controlled network sources will make it to the wider Internet. The origins will probably be even more obscured than they otherwise might be. In an already-connected world, it will be really hard to deny someone connectivity completely, especially when they have the resources of a nation-state. Trying to block one country’s networks could harm its government, but it could harm its domestic dissent, too.

Once large network operators start demonstrating an ability to make routing decisions on political grounds, other governments will notice. This will attract regulatory requirements to shape network interconnection in real time along political lines. If we travel that path, in short order the network of networks will not exist. In its place we would have a different network design built around national gateways, broken up on geopolitical lines, and just as dynamic and robust as other multilateral, regulation-based systems. The Internet has done a lot to erode those systems because it is more efficient and effective. We’d give that up.

Without the Internet, the rest of the world would not know of atrocities happening in other places. And without the Internet, ordinary citizens of many countries wouldn’t know what was being carried out in their name. Our best hope, however dim, is that those supporting an aggressive regime will change their support. More information can help, even as disinformation circulates. We need a better understanding of what is and is not disinformation. Cutting a whole population off the Internet will stop disinformation coming from that population—but it also stops the flow of truth.

We must not ease the path for those who hate the Internet and its ability to empower people. We must fight the suppression of the Internet. This means making sure connectivity does not stop for anyone. It means ensuring that strong encryption, which protects ordinary communications, but also allows political discourse in the face of censorship, is always available. It means making sure the critical properties of the Internet are not undermined by legislation, no matter how well-meaning. It means making interconnections cheap and easy and ubiquitous, so that all networks are reliable and robust systems that can be made from unreliable parts. It means dedicating ourselves to ensuring that the Internet is for everyone.

Far too many people all over the world are living under conflict. All should have access to the greatest communication tool ever invented. The Internet is a tool to help them understand what is going on, and to communicate their struggle. It is a tool for the oppressed to show their oppression. If we try to bend it only to the will of governments, we will break it, losing all of these opportunities. People invaded by a foreign power deserve the Internet. But we cannot be selective about who has access.

We must never waver from this vision. The Internet is for everyone.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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