The exit of the major internet service provider will be a blow to Russia’s online traffic but advocates warn that cutting the country off entirely would set a dangerous precedent.
US company Cogent Communications has terminated services for clients in Russia in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
The global internet service provider emailed clients on Friday (4 March) warning that their services would be cut off at 5pm UTC. According to Reuters, some clients requested extensions that the company was working to accommodate.
Cogent is reportedly the second-largest internet carrier out of Russia and its clients include the state-owned Russian telco Rostelecom, national fibre broadband operator TransTelekom and two of Russia’s three top mobile networks.
The complete termination of its services in Russia will likely take several days, allowing time for clients to find alternative networks or fall back on other partners.
While the move will not cut Russia off from the global internet, it will likely affect overall bandwidth across the country and result in congestion for the remaining active carriers.
Internet services shut down
Network monitoring company Kentik published details from the letter sent to Cogent customers. Cogent attributed its decision to the “unwarranted and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”.
“The economic sanctions put in place as a result of the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue to provide you with service,” it added.
The letter explained that Cogent’s ports and IP address space would be reclaimed while equipment for colocation customers would be powered down and utility computing customers would be cut off from access to servers.
Cogent also provides services to Russian search engine Yandex, which recently started warning Russian users searching for news about Ukraine that there may be unreliable information online. Lev Gershenzon, the former head of news at Yandex, has called on his former colleagues to quit Russia’s largest tech company over the censorship of the Ukraine invasion.
Tech companies exiting Russia
Speaking to The Washington Post, Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer acknowledged that this decision would also impact the ordinary citizens of Russia, but said that the goal is to ensure the company’s networks are not used for propaganda or cyberattacks.
Internet backbone companies such as Cogent have recently become a focus point for Ukrainian minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who has been flooding tech companies with requests to cut ties with Russia.
Whether in response to Fedorov or simply acting in light of the invasion itself, major tech companies including Microsoft and Apple have suspended sales and services in Russia while others such as Google, Meta, Twitter, Spotify, TikTok and Netflix have taken action to limit or alter their services.
Cybersecurity firm Netscout has also joined the lengthening list of tech companies exiting Russia in line with international sanctions, meaning its DDoS protections will no longer be available to Russian websites and services.
Advocates speak out against ‘splinternets’
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is among those asked to help cut Russia off from the global internet. Last week, the nonprofit organisation responded with a letter to Ukrainian officials explaining that such a request is not feasible or within the organisation’s mission
When such calls first began to gain traction, Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of nonprofit advocacy group the Internet Society, wrote: “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.”
Russia itself has for some years been trying to create a ‘splinternet’ isolated from the global network, despite protests from citizens. In 2019, the Iranian government blocked internet access during a period of unrest and China is well known to block access to foreign internet services and heavily regulate what its citizens can access online.
However, Sullivan explained, it is not realistic to believe an entire country can be successfully cut off from the internet, nor is it advisable.
“Once large network operators start demonstrating an ability to make routing decisions on political grounds, other governments will notice,” Sullivan wrote. “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.”
Speaking to The Washington Post, Mikhail Klimarev of the Internet Protection Society, warned: “If you turn off the internet in Russia, then this means cutting off 140m people from at least some truthful information.”
Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, echoed this statement, tweeting: “Cutting Russians off from internet access cuts them from off from sources of independent news and the ability to organise anti-war protests. Don’t do Putin’s dirty work for him.”
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