Russia is building a new digital Iron Curtain

Russia is building a new digital Iron Curtain


Russia is building an iron Curtain on the Internet in the wake of the Ukraine war. The country is blocking access to more and more Western Internet services such as Twitter and Co. In addition, more and more international players such as Apple, Microsoft, etc. are giving up their offers in Russia. […]

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Russian citizens to find out about the Ukraine war from other sources via the Internet. On the one hand, as the New York Times reports, more and more Western companies are ceasing their digital engagement in Russia. These include TikTok, Netflix, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and others. Even online video games like Minecraft are no longer available.

Multinational Internet service provider Cogent Communications, the second largest Internet carrier in Russia, also suspended its services. With Lumen Technologies – formerly CenturyLink – the next major Internet backbone operator is now cutting its connections to Russia. The company stated that it will no longer forward traffic for organizations based in Russia.

“Life in Russia has taken a turn and Lumen is no longer able to continue operating in this market,” Lumen said in a statement published as an FAQ. “The business services we offer are extremely small and very limited, as is our physical presence. Nevertheless, we have taken steps to immediately cease our business activities in the region.“

“We have decided to shut down the network due to the increased security risk within Russia,” the statement continues. “We have not yet experienced any network disruptions, but given the increasingly uncertain environment and the increased risk of government action, we have decided to take this step to ensure the security of our networks and our customers’ networks, as well as the ongoing integrity of the global Internet.“

According to the Internet monitoring company Kentik, Lumen is the leading international transit provider to Russia. Customers include Russian telco giants Rostelecom and TTK, as well as all three major mobile operators (MTS, Megafon and VEON). “A backbone provider that shuts down its customers in a country the size of Russia is unprecedented in the history of the Internet and reflects the fierce global response to the invasion of Ukraine,” Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at Kentik, wrote in a blog post.

It remains to be seen whether other Internet backbone providers – some of which are based outside the United States – will follow the example of Lumen and Cogent. Problems for Russia’s Internet connection could also threaten from another side: Madory, for example, points out that Russian telecos may have difficulty paying foreign transit providers for their services in view of the ongoing economic sanctions.

On the other hand, Russia is building a digital iron Curtain to prevent free information about the war that Putin is waging against Ukraine. For example, the Russian regulator Roskomnadzor blocks sites such as Twitter, BBC News, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Facebook, TikTok and others.

Russia has thus turned into a closed-off digital state, similar to China and Iran. These states have been strictly controlling the Internet for a long time, censoring foreign websites and dissenting opinions. The Chinese Internet and the Western Internet, for example, have become almost completely separated over the years, with few overlapping services and little direct communication. In Iran, the authorities imposed Internet bans around 2019 during the protests against gasoline prices. In addition, the country will pass a law on the nationalization of the Internet in 2021, which will allow even more censorship.

Russia’s digital Iron Curtain is ultimately a defeat for the once prevailing belief in the West that the Internet is a tool for democracy that would cause authoritarian countries to open up. “The vision of a free and open Internet that works all over the world no longer exists,” says Brian Fishman, a senior fellow at the New America Think tank and former director of counterterrorism at Facebook. “Now the Internet is lumpy.” “For the people of Russia, this will feel like a return to the 1980s, because suddenly the information is again in the hands of the state, ” adds Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a London-based organization that tracks Internet censorship.

The digital blockades in the wake of the Ukraine war represent a culmination of the attempts of the Russian authorities to curtail the once open and permissive Internet. But the authorities in Putin’s empire have been intensifying their censorship campaigns in their own country for decades and are trying to create a so-called “sovereign Internet”. That is why the current construction of a digital iron curtain is only partially surprising, as our article “History of Internet Censorship in Russia” shows.

In the course of the Ukraine war, not only – as mentioned above – websites are blocked. There are also increasing indications that Russia is planning to disconnect from the rest of the Internet. For example, in the future there will only be Russian domain name system servers (DNS), which will further facilitate the blocking of international sites.

Furthermore, foreign hosting providers should transfer their offers to Russian servers. In the future, all offers will also run via the TLD (top-level domain) .ru. It would also be conceivable to manipulate the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) in order to decouple Russia from the rest of the Internet. It is not for nothing that the US FCC is currently investigating BGP in more detail with regard to cybersecurity.

*Jürgen Hill is Chief Reporter Future Technologies at COMPUTERWOCHE. The graduated journalist and computer scientist is currently dealing with current IT trend topics such as AI, quantum computing, digital twins, IoT, digitization, etc. In addition, he has a long-standing background in the field of communications with all its facets (TK, mobile, LAN, WAN).

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