But last week, Russia’s cut off from the global internet went one layer deeper. Two of the world’s largest ISPs, Lumen Technologies and Cogent Communications, said they would block Russian customers from accessing their networks for fear that their networks could be used by the Russian government to cyber-attacks on the West. But the knock-on effect is that it will be even harder for the people of this country to use the worldwide network. The move underscores the tension over Russia’s effort to erect what is known as the digital iron curtain to cut off citizens from outside information, just as China has been doing for years. Companies find themselves trapped between helping Russians freely access the Internet and ensuring that their services are not used by the Russian government to spread disinformation, propaganda, or worse.
The consequences are huge. Together, Lumen and Cogent lead the nearly 600,000 miles of fiber that make up the casing for the global Internet, each operating in over 50 countries, according to their websites.
Both companies say their moves were aimed directly at the Russian government, not at the Russian people, and that any obstruction of access to outside information is an unfortunate side effect.
“We as a company believe very strongly in the open and uncensored internet,” said Dave Schaeffer, CEO of Cogent in an interview with CNN Business. “It was a very difficult decision.”
According to Schaeffer, cutting off Russia is a preventive measure against cyber attacks that can be perpetrated through the Cogent network by the Russian government or persons associated with it. He said the Washington-based company has limited its operations to around 25 customers registered in Russia and directly with Russian networks. This means that Russian companies using the Cogent network outside the country through non-Russian state-owned entities may continue to do so.
“We felt that the downside of offensive use of these connections outweighed the negative effects of terminating some services,” he added.
An unprecedented decision
Lumen, based in Los Angeles, cited a similar rationale for its decision, which came days after Cogent’s.
“We decided to disconnect the network due to the increased security risk in Russia,” Mark Molzen, the company’s global director, said in an email. “We have not yet experienced network disruptions, but given the increasingly uncertain environment and the increased risk of government action, we have taken this step to ensure the security of our and our customers’ networks, and the continued integrity of the global Internet.”
In some respects, it is also an unprecedented decision. Schaeffer said Cogent had previously removed some websites and addresses as requested by governments in several countries, including Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States, as long as the requests have a legal basis.
“This is different,” he said, describing it as the first time the company had made a proactive move. “We don’t look inside our customers’ pipes, what they do with them is their business. In this case, we finished the entire pipe. ”