Russia’s Major Internet Access Cut Off; Inside Cogent’s Decision

Dave Schaeffer, CEO Cogent Internet Communications, saw many small-scale Russian military intelligence attacks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Cogent, the internet backbone company, saw many small-scale Russian military intelligence attacks.

Dave Schaeffer, CEO of Cogent Communications, knew he had big problems even before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Schaeffer’s company, Cogent, runs a huge chunk of the internet backbone and sells access to it. It had seen Russia’s military intelligence use the internet to launch online attacks; some of those attacks had traveled over Cogent’s system.

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Now the more-serious worries are attacks that could target Ukraine, the US, and the global internet. Cogent’s network could be a conduit for such attacks. So after several days of discussion, Schaeffer decided that Cogent would cut off Russian customers’ connections to the outside internet on March 4.

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

Cogent’s decision was unprecedented in the networking industry, whose companies pride themselves on their services’ breadth, speed, and reliability. It was vital as Cogent is a giant that carries about a quarter of the global internet traffic.

Its network of fiber-optic cable stretches 100,000 miles connecting 51 countries. Cogent’s services link over 7,500 other networks operated by internet service providers, universities, governments, and companies in Russia alone.

Unplugging Russia is a significant chapter in the history of the internet. Isolating Russia is a development that’s both imposed on the country and one that the country imposed on itself.

The decision raises risks that the global internet could fragment into a “splinternet” of regional networks. So far, China’s Great Firewall is the most significant step a large country has taken on the ordinary global internet.

Other factors are hindering Russia’s online presence. Several companies headquartered in the West have made it difficult for Russians to use their services. Apple and Microsoft stopped product sales, and Adobe shut down its cloud-based services for advertisers and creative pros.

YouTube has cut off ad revenue for Russian publishers. Lumen Technologies, another international network provider, ended its operations in Russia a few days after Cogent.

The Russian government has blocked Facebook, which could help Russians hear independent views of the invasion. Russia also plans to cut off Instagram on March 14. at the same time, Twitter has embraced the censorship-evading technology Tor after Russia blocked its services. 

Even so, Cogent’s decision to pull the plug on service in Russia is among the most notable moves. Schaeffer acknowledges that Cogent’s action removed enough network capacity to prevent ordinary Russians from streaming videos outside the country. But he says improving global security was a more important consideration.

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Cogent has spotted “numerous instances” of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, attacking online targets around the world, though it declined to share details. 

With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the resulting international response, Schaeffer worried that those more minor Russian attacks could get bigger.

He said, Cogent’s high capacity network could be a conduit for online assaults like distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks, which flood a targeted website with so much data that it collapses under the load. Cogent also worried about other attacks, like router hijackings, that could benefit from its network capacity.

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

That’s why, after the company had begun trying to move its employees to safety, Schaeffer proposed cutting off Cogent’s Russian network connections. He sought input from across the company before making the decision and telling customers on March 3.

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“I talked to some of our board members. I talked to my management team and also I consulted with sales,” including staff in Ukraine, he said. “Ultimately, listening to all sides, I felt that this was the right decision to make.”

After that, Cogent began reconfiguring its network to block each port connecting to its Russian network customers, removing them one by one from the routing tables that determine how data flows across networks. The Russian embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Though Ukraine has called for a complete Russian internet cutoff, internet advocates don’t like the idea.

“If everyone else does this,” said Internet Society CEO Andrew Sullivan, “then the internet will become more fragile and less interconnected.” The Internet Society is a nonprofit seeking to bring online access to everyone.

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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, an international organization that oversees internet domains, says it doesn’t have the authority to impose sanctions and explicitly rejects actions that politicize the internet. It turned down the Ukrainian request to cut off Russia.

Cogent’s business is a robust internet and doesn’t want a splinternet. But cutting off Cogent’s internet links to Russia damages the internet less than a big attack would, in Schaeffer’s view.

In particular, he’s worried about an attack that could target the 13 root servers that collectively store the authoritative addresses of all the servers on the internet. Cogent operates one of them.

“We have seen the GRU specifically attempt to target routers that control the internet,” Schaeffer said, referring to the root servers. “We have had to harden that router server multiple times due to attacks originating in Russia. If you took down all 13, you would effectively render the internet useless within 12 hours.”

Ultimately, protecting the internet overall is more important than safeguarding Russians’ online experience, Schaeffer and his team decided.

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