Inside Cogent’s Decide to Block Access to a Massive Part of Russia’s Internet

Inside Cogent's Decision to Cut Off a Major Part of Russia's Internet Access
pic credit: The Munsif Daily

According to the cogent internet backbone provider, Russian military intelligence has already launched a number of small-scale attacks.

Cogent Communications CEO Dave Schaeffer realized he had huge problems even before Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24.

Russia’s military intelligence had used the internet to launch online attacks, according to Schaeffer’s company, which maintains a large portion of the internet backbone and sells access to it. The corporation discovered that some of the attacks had passed via Cogent’s network.

He was now concerned about more significant attacks against Ukraine, the United States, and the internet as a whole. He was concerned that Cogent’s network would be used as a conduit for the attacks. So, after several days of deliberation, Schaeffer reached a decision: on March 4, Cogent would cut off Russian customers’ access to the outside internet.

“My biggest worry was that our network could be corrupted and utilized for harmful purposes,” Schaeffer said in an interview.

Cogent’s decision was a watershed moment for the networking sector, which prides itself on the breadth, speed, and dependability of its services. It was especially critical because Cogent is a behemoth, handling roughly a quarter of all internet traffic. It has a 100,000-mile fiber-optic cable network that connects 51 nations. The company’s services connect Russia’s carriers to more than 7,500 other networks run by internet service providers, colleges, governments, and businesses.

Unplugging Russia is a watershed moment in internet history. In general, the internet has infiltrated our life, allowing us to check the weather in Bangkok or rent a car in Corsica. Isolating Russia, which is being imposed on it as well as imposed on itself, increases the risk of the global internet fragmenting into a “splinternet” of geographically diverse networks. So far, material filtering through China’s Great Firewall is the most significant move away from the global internet that a sizable country has taken.

The action of Cogent isn’t the only thing limiting Russia’s online presence. A slew of Western corporations has made it harder for Russians to access their services. Russian publishers, for example, have had their ad money cut off by YouTube. Apple and Microsoft ceased product sales, and Adobe’s cloud-based services for creative professionals and advertising were taken down. Lumen Technologies, another multinational network provider, shut down its operations in Russia a few days after Cogent.

Russia has also made steps to limit access to the internet for its population. The authorities shut down Facebook, which could have allowed Russians to hear perspectives other than those expressed in state-run media about the invasion. On March 14, it intends to turn off Instagram. Following Russia’s decision to restrict the service, Twitter embraced the censorship-eluding Tor technology.

Nonetheless, Cogent’s decision to cease service in Russia is one of the most notable. Schaeffer admits that Cogent’s activity reduced network capacity to the point where ordinary Russians were unable to view videos from outside the nation. However, he claims that boosting world security was a higher priority.

Cogent has seen “many instances” of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, hitting online targets all across the world, though it declined to give specifics. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the international response that followed, Schaeffer was concerned that lesser Russian attacks could become more serious.

“We were concerned that the scale would shift substantially,” he explained.

Cogent’s high-capacity network might be used to carry out online attacks such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, in which a targeted website is flooded with so much data that it crashes. Cogent was also concerned about other forms of assaults that could take advantage of their network’s capacity, such as router hijackings.

“These would be state-sponsored strikes,” Schaeffer added, referring to attacks aimed at disrupting the internet on a broad scale.

That’s why, after the company began attempting to relocate its personnel, Schaeffer advocated disconnecting Cogent’s Russian network links. Before making the decision and informing customers on March 3, he sought input from across the organization.

“I spoke with a few members of our board of directors. I had a discussion with my management team. I spoke with salespeople “He stated that this included personnel in Ukraine. “After listening to all sides, I came to the conclusion that this was the best decision to make.”

Cogent then began modifying its network to block each port connected to its Russian network customers, one by one eliminating them from the routing tables that control how data travels across networks. A request for a response from the Russian embassy was not returned.

Despite the fact that Ukraine has asked for a complete shutdown of Russian internet access, internet supporters are opposed to the concept.

“If everyone does this,” said Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society, “the internet would become more vulnerable and less integrated.” The Internet Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that everyone has access to the internet.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, an international agency in charge of internet domains, claims it lacks the ability to enforce sanctions and expressly rejects activities that politicize the internet. It dismissed Ukraine’s plea to isolate Russia.

Cogent does not desire a splinternet because its business is based on it. But, in Schaeffer’s opinion, cutting down Cogent’s internet connections to Russia causes less damage to the internet than a big attack. He’s particularly concerned about an attack on the 13 root servers, which together store the authoritative addresses of all the internet’s servers. One of them is run by Cogent.

“We’ve seen the GRU try to target routers that control the internet,” Schaeffer added, referring to root servers. “We’ve had to harden that router server several times owing to Russian-based threats. If you pulled down all 13, the internet would be effectively rendered worthless in less than 12 hours.”

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

According to Schaeffer, isolating Russia “sets a horrible precedent in that you don’t want to fragment the internet.” “However, sending tanks into another country and then threatening to wipe them out with a cyberattack sets a poor precedent.”

Also Read: Should Russians be prohibited from trading cryptocurrency due to the conflict in Ukraine?

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