The raison d’être of the internet, which allows everyone to freely transmit information, is being reassessed after Russia invaded Ukraine, as our cross-border information infrastructure faces a crisis of fragmentation.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in the United States, is a private organization that manages Internet domains. At the end of February, the Ukrainian government asked ICANN to invalidate Russian domains.
Ukraine’s goal was to cut off the Russian government’s propaganda justifying the invasion, but ICANN denied the request, stating: “In our role as technical coordinator for unique identifiers for the internet, we are taking steps to ensure that the way the internet works is not politicized and we have no sanctioning powers.”
At the same time, some communications companies in the US and Europe have suspended their services to Russia, citing that such services could provide a route for cyberattacks.
— A smartphone information war
Since the end of the Cold War, the Internet has evolved alongside economic globalization. In the 1990s there were a few million internet users. Now it’s 5 billion and the Internet has become an international public good.
Internet fragmentation that impairs truly global connectivity is known as a “splinternet.” It is not uncommon for authoritarian states to separate foreign countries from their domestic networks in order to control information. In Russia there is a law that allows blocking information of foreign origin in emergencies. And many America-based social media sites cannot be used in China, which has strengthened its control over information.
The question this time was whether international society would exclude Russia from cyberspace.
“This is the first time the world is thinking about what to do with the Internet in times of war,” said Akinori Maemura of the Japan Network Information Center, which manages Internet addresses.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the US military attack on Iraq was broadcast live via satellite. Now Ukrainian citizens have taken to social media to convey the damage done to their country to international society and to ask for support. And smartphones are playing a leading role in the information war.
In Russia, meanwhile, social media restrictions have been imposed, restricting the dissemination of information favorable to the government. For this reason, more and more people are said to be using encrypted Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to try to access messages from abroad.
Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society, a global organization with a leadership role in the development of Internet technologies and other fields, wrote that for people around the world living in conflict, “the Internet is a tool that helps to understand what’s going on and to communicate their struggle.” He added, “Turning an entire population off the internet will prevent disinformation from coming from that population — but it will also stop the flow of truth.”
In order to maintain a democratic society, it is vital for the public to have free access to information infrastructure and to learn the truth. The problem is that advanced digital technology is being misused, making it harder to determine whether information is genuine or not.
— The role of the Internet in strengthening democracy
When the Internet first appeared and began to expand, it was hoped that if the world were connected via communication lines, people would share values such as freedom and human rights. However, we are currently seeing the side effects of these compounds.
As became clear with the release of a fake video that appears to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling on his own troops to surrender, deepfakes created with artificial intelligence are becoming more sophisticated. Fake information creates bias and fuels resistance.
The United States and some other countries have encountered problems with election interference, where personally identifiable information was collected and analyzed to induce certain voting behavior. Such interference distorts the democratic process.
It has also been pointed out that the use of social media and search engines limits people’s views, trapping them in echo chambers where they only converse with people who share their views and allow skewed information to flow freely. We must not allow society to become intolerant and different values to be banished.
Cyberspace can be either a protector or a destroyer of peace, depending on how it is used. States and regions that respect the free circulation of information must work together and put their heads together to build a mechanism to keep the internet healthy.
Open-source intelligence agencies (OSINT), which use public information to fact-check, have proven powerful in the Ukraine crisis. There have also been moves by governments to require operators to take stronger measures against fake information and to introduce legal restrictions.
The internet allows people with different historical backgrounds and ways of thinking to connect with each other and through discussions to reach a common understanding. International cooperation should be strengthened to protect its value and strengthen democracy.