Home Networking service Behind the scenes of Cogent’s decision to cut off much of Russia’s internet access

Behind the scenes of Cogent’s decision to cut off much of Russia’s internet access

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Cogent Communications sought to block large-scale Russian attacks on the Internet. RuNet refers to the Internet in Russia.

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This story is part War in UkraineCNET’s coverage of events there and the wider effects on the world.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Cogent Communications CEO Dave Schaeffer knew he was in big trouble.

Schaeffer’s company, which runs much of the internet backbone and sells access to it, had observed Russian military intelligence using the internet to launch online attacks. The company determined that some of these attacks passed through Cogent’s system.

Now he worried about more serious attacks that could target Ukraine, the United States, and the internet in general. He feared that Cogent’s network was a conduit for these attacks. Thus, after several days of discussion, Schaeffer makes a decision: Cogent will break Connections of Russian customers outside the Internet on March 4.

“My biggest fear,” Scaeffer said in an interview, “was that our network could be hijacked and used for offensive purposes.”

Cogent’s decision was a remarkable milestone in the networking industry, whose companies pride themselves on the breadth, speed and reliability of their services. This was all the more important since Cogent is a giant, carrying about a quarter of Internet traffic. Its fiber optic cable network spans 100,000 miles and touches 51 countries. In Russia alone, the company’s services connect the country’s carriers to more than 7,500 other networks operated by Internet service providers, universities, governments and businesses.

Unplugging Russia is a great moment in the history of the Internet. Generally, the Internet has crept more and more into our lives, allowing us to check the weather in Bangkok or rent a car in Corsica. Russia’s isolation, a development that is both imposed on the country and self-imposed, runs the risk of the global internet fragmenting into a “splinternetfrom different regional networks. So far, blocking content through China’s Great Firewall is the biggest step a major country has taken compared to the ordinary global internet.

Cogent’s action is not the only factor limiting Russia’s online presence. A host of companies headquartered in the West have made it difficult for Russians to use their services. YouTube, for example, cut advertising revenue from Russian publishers. Apple and Microsoft halted product sales, and Adobe shut down its cloud-based services for creative professionals and advertisers. Another international network provider, Lumen Technologiesended its operations in Russia a few days after Cogent.

Russia has also taken measures that restrict the internet for its citizens. The government has blocked Facebook, which could help Russians hear opinions independent of state media descriptions of the invasion. It plans to cut instagram march 14. Twitter has adopted Tor technology which avoids censorship after Russia decided to block the service.

Still, Cogent’s decision to end service in Russia is one of the most notable moves. Schaeffer acknowledges that Cogent’s action removed enough network capacity to prevent ordinary Russians from streaming video from outside the country. But he says improving global security was a more important consideration.

Cogent spotted “numerous instances” of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, attacking online targets around the world, although he declined to share details. With Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine and the resulting international response, Schaeffer feared that these small Russian attacks would become larger.

“We were afraid the scale might change drastically,” he said.

Cogent’s high-capacity network could be a vector for online attacks such as distributed denial-of-service or DDoS attacks, which flood a targeted website with so much data that it collapses under load. Cogent was also concerned about other types of attacks, such as router hijackings, that could benefit its network capacity.

“These would be state-sponsored attacks” intended to disrupt the internet on a massive scale, Schaeffer said.

That’s why, after the company began trying to get its employees to safety, Schaeffer offered to cut connections to Cogent’s Russian network. He sought input from across the company before making the decision and notifying customers on March 3.

“I spoke to some of our board members. I spoke to my management team. I consulted with sales,” including staff in Ukraine, he said. “In the end, listening to all parties, I felt it was the right decision to make.”

After that, Cogent began reconfiguring its network to block every port connecting to its Russian network customers, removing them one by one from the routing tables that determine how data travels through the networks. The Russian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Ukraine has called for a complete internet shutdown in Russia, internet advocates don’t like the idea.

“If everyone does that,” said internet company CEO Andrew Sullivan, “then the internet will become more fragile and less interconnected.” The Internet Society is a non-profit organization that seeks to provide online access to everyone.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or I CAN, an international organization that oversees internet domains, says it has no power to impose sanctions and explicitly rejects actions that politicize the internet. He rejected the Ukrainian request to cut off Russia.

Cogent, whose business is built on a robust internet, doesn’t want a splinternet. But cutting Cogent’s Internet ties to Russia does less damage to the Internet than a major attack would, according to Schaeffer. He is particularly worried about an attack that could target the 13 root servers which collectively store the authoritative addresses of all servers on the Internet. Cogent operates one.

“We’ve seen the GRU specifically attempt to target routers that control the internet,” Schaeffer said, referring to root servers. “We had to harden this router server several times due to attacks from Russia. If you removed the 13, you would effectively render the Internet unusable within 12 hours.”

Ultimately, protecting the internet as a whole is more important than protecting Russians’ online experience, Schaeffer and his team decided.

Cutting Russia “sets a bad precedent in that you don’t want to divide the internet,” Schaeffer acknowledges. “But it’s a bad precedent to send your tanks into someone else’s country and then threaten to wipe them out with a cyberattack.”