Lumen Technologies, an American company that operates one of the largest Internet backbones and carries a significant percentage of the world’s Internet traffic, said today it will stop routing traffic for organizations based in Russia. Lumen’s decision comes just days after a similar exit by backbone provider Cogent, and amid a news media crackdown in Russia that has already left millions of Russians in the dark about what is really going on with their president’s war in Ukraine.
Monroe, La. based Lumen [NYSE: LUMN] (formerly CenturyLink) initially said it would halt all new business with organizations based in Russia, leaving open the possibility of continuing to serve existing clients there. But on Tuesday the company said it could no longer justify that stance.
“Life has taken a turn in Russia and Lumen is unable to continue to operate in this market,” Lumen said in a published statement. “The business services we provide are extremely small and very limited as is our physical presence. However, we are taking steps to immediately stop business in the region.”
“We decided to disconnect the network due to increased security risk inside Russia,” the statement continues. “We have not yet experienced network disruptions but given the increasingly uncertain environment and the heightened risk of state action, we took this move to ensure the security of our and our customers’ networks, as well as the ongoing integrity of the global Internet.”
According to Internet infrastructure monitoring firm Kentik, Lumen is the top international transit provider to Russia, with customers including Russian telecom giants Rostelecom and TTK, as well as all three major mobile operators (MTS, Megafon and VEON).
“A backbone carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is without precedent in the history of the internet and reflects the intense global reaction that the world has had over the invasion of Ukraine,” wrote Doug Madory, Kentik’s director of Internet analysis.
It’s not clear whether any other Internet backbone providers — some of which are based outside of the United States — will follow the lead of Lumen and Cogent. But Madory notes that as economic sanctions continue to exact a toll on Russia’s economy, its own telecommunications firms may have difficulty paying foreign transit providers for service.
Ukrainian leaders petitioned the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the nonprofit organization charged with overseeing the global domain name system — to disconnect Russia’s top-level domain (.ru) from the Internet. ICANN respectfully declined that request, but many technology giants, including Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, have moved on their own to suspend new business in the country.
Meanwhile, Russia recently cracked down on the last remaining vestiges of a free press within its borders, passing a new law that threatens up to 15 years in jail for anyone who publishes content that refers to the conflict in Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion.”
As Neil MacFarquhar writes for The New York Times, what little coverage there is on Russian television networks about the invasion does not include any footage of the devastation wrought by Russian troops on the Ukrainian citizenry. At the same time, the Russian government has blocked Facebook and partly blocked Twitter, while other platforms like TikTok have suspended services in the country.
“To spend several days watching news broadcasts on the main state channels, as well as surveying state-controlled newspapers, is to witness the extent of the Kremlin’s efforts to sanitize its war with the Orwellian term ‘special military operation’ — and to make all news coverage align with that message,” MacFarquhar wrote.
The Washington Post, which was the first to report on Cogent’s decision last week, wrote that these independent actions by private tech companies collectively “will leave Russians more dependent than ever on government propaganda that already dominates the nation’s newspapers and broadcast stations, leaving few ways to access independent sources of news at a time when the country has entered a severe political crisis.”
In a blog post titled “Why the World Must Resist Calls to Undermine the Internet,” Internet Society President Andrew Sullivan said cutting a whole population off the Internet will stop disinformation coming from that population — but it also stops the flow of truth.
“Without the Internet, the rest of the world would not know of atrocities happening in other places,” Sullivan wrote. “And without the Internet, ordinary citizens of many countries wouldn’t know what was being carried out in their name. Our best hope, however dim, is that those supporting an aggressive regime will change their support. More information can help, even as disinformation circulates. We need a better understanding of what is and is not disinformation.”
There is another — perhaps less popular — camp, which holds that isolating Russia from the rest of the Internet might be THE thing that encourages more Russians to protest the war in Ukraine, and ultimately to take back control of their own country from its autocratic and kleptocratic leaders.
Not long after Russia invaded Ukraine, I heard from an old pen-pal in Ukraine: Sergey Vovnenko, a.k.a. “Flycracker,” a.k.a the convicted Ukrainian cybercriminal who once executed a plot to have me framed for heroin possession. Vovnenko did his time in a U.S. prison, left Fly behind, and we have since buried the hatchet. He’s now hunkered down in Lviv, Ukraine, which is serving as a major artery for refugees seeking shelter outside Ukraine’s borders.
These days, Vovnenko says he is working with many sympathetic hackers to fight the Russians online. Asked what he thought about the idea of Russia being isolated from the rest of the Internet, Vovnenko said it couldn’t happen soon enough given the Russian government’s new media blitz to cast the war in a patriotic light.
“I think they should be disconnected, maybe Russian people will rebel against Putin after that,” he said.