“A new iron curtain is descending across Russia’s Internet”
The Washington Post, March 4, 2022
By Craig Timberg, Cat Zakrzewski and Joseph Menn
“On Friday, online access was curtailed by both Russian censors and Western businesses as the war in Ukraine became a reason for moves that limited free access to the Internet.”
“The Cogent move by itself broke a piece of the Internet’s vaunted “backbone” — the most important structural element in keeping global data flowing. “A backbone carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is without precedent in the history of the Internet,” analyst Doug Madory of monitoring firm Kentik wrote in a blog.”
Advocates of an open, globally connected Internet long have worried that a major country or region would break away from the Web amid geopolitical strife, dashing hopes of a seamless network capable of uniting a fractious world.
Little more than a week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world is coming closer to that unsettling prophecy than ever before.
Moscow’s censors on Friday banned Facebook and throttled other American social media services. Microsoft banned sales to Russians, following a similar move by Apple. And a leading American conduit of Internet data, Cogent Communications, severed ties with its Russian clients to prevent its networks from being used for propaganda or cyberattacks aimed at beleaguered Ukrainians.
Taken together, these and other events likely will make it harder for Russians to track the horrors unfolding in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s own independent media has been almost completely shut down by President Vladimir Putin. On an even larger scale, these moves bring Russia closer to the day when its online networks face largely inward, their global connections weakened, if not cut off entirely.
“I am very afraid of this,” said Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, which advocates for digital freedoms in Russia. “I would like to convey to people all over the world that if you turn off the Internet in Russia, then this means cutting off 140 million people from at least some truthful information. As long as the Internet exists, people can find out the truth. There will be no Internet — all people in Russia will only listen to propaganda.”
Russia’s Internet censorship technology, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly advanced, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who authored “The Red Web,” a book on the Internet there. People are increasingly relying on VPNs to access blocked websites by accessing connection points outside Russia, he said, but there’s a risk that even those will be blocked by the government.
“For the Russians, it’s very dramatic, and it’s very fast,” said Soldatov. “Which means people are not just trying to adjust but to fight back.”
Autocrats in several nations have worked to gain more control over what their citizens see and do online, while also seeking to isolate them from outside ideas. Iran unplugged from the global Internet for a week in 2019 while the government battled internal unrest. China for years has trapped its citizens behind a “Great Firewall” of aggressive monitoring and censorship.
The Cogent move by itself broke a piece of the Internet’s vaunted “backbone” — the most important structural element in keeping global data flowing. “A backbone carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is without precedent in the history of the Internet,” analyst Doug Madory of monitoring firm Kentik wrote in a blog.
Cogent chief executive Dave Schaeffer said the company did not want to keep ordinary Russians off the Internet but did want to prevent the Russian government from using Cogent’s networks to launch cyberattacks or deliver propaganda targeting Ukraine at a time of war.
“Our goal is not to hurt anyone. It’s just to not empower the Russian government to have another tool in their war chest,” he said.
About the Authors:
Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post. Since joining The Post in 1998, he has been a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent, and he contributed to The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the National Security Agency.
Cat Zakrzewski is a technology policy reporter, tracking Washington’s efforts to regulate Silicon Valley companies. Her reporting covers antitrust, privacy and the debate over regulating social media companies.
Joseph Menn joined The Post in 2022 after two decades covering technology for Reuters, the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. His books include “Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World” (2019) and “Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords who are Bringing Down the Internet” (2010).