The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lumen, a second major American Internet carrier, pulling out of Russia

The move is certain to increase Russia’s isolation from outside information

(Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
4 min

Lumen, a leading American Internet provider to Russia, announced Tuesday that it was severing business relations in the country, a move likely to increase Russia’s isolation as its citizens slip behind what some analysts are calling a new digital Iron Curtain.

Lumen became the second top U.S.-based carrier to make such a move in recent days, following Friday’s announcement by Cogent Communications. Taken together, these moves are likely to make it harder for Russians to gain access to international services, such as news sites and social media based in the West, telecommunications experts said. Access to internal networks within Russia would not be affected.

American technology and telecommunications companies have been cutting services in Russia since it invaded Ukraine last month. In the same period, Russia’s government has throttled or blocked popular U.S.-based services such as Twitter and Facebook while imposing new criminal penalties for news coverage that doesn’t follow the Kremlin’s strict censorship policies. Many leading Western news organizations have ceased operations there, further weakening the flow of information from the country that is being roiled by punishing international sanctions.

A new iron curtain is descending across Russia’s Internet

Lumen said in a statement posted to its website, “We decided to disconnect the network due to increased security risk inside Russia. 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.”

The company tried to downplay its importance to the Russian market, saying, “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.”

But telecommunications analysts said it is one of Russia’s top sources of data from international sources. The company’s customers include some of Russia’s biggest providers of Internet to companies and customers based there, including the nation’s state-owned telecommunications companies, Rostelecom and TransTelekom.

With Cogent and Lumen leaving, the remaining top sources of international data are Western companies based in Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom, according to an analysis by Internet monitoring firm Kentik.

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at Kentik. “This is going to add up. It would be noticeable, I think.”

Ukrainian officials have been calling on companies and institutions to isolate Russia from the online world, even going so far as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit group that oversees key elements of the Internet’s functioning, to suspend Russia’s “.ru” country domain.

ICANN rejected that request, but a growing number of U.S.-based companies are cutting off Russian customers in ways that threaten to undermine long-standing ties with the West. Apple, Microsoft and others have stopped sales there.

Amazon also moved to limit its cloud services within the region Tuesday, saying it would stop accepting new Amazon Web Services customers in Russia and Belarus, which has provided Russian military forces staging areas for attacking Ukraine.

The company, which operates the largest cloud-computing business in the world, said it does not do business with the Russian government and does not have data centers within the country. It does have some customers inside Russia that use AWS, Amazon said, but the biggest ones are “companies who are headquartered outside of the country and have some development teams there.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Russia’s own government, meanwhile, has been cutting back access to the West as well through a growing number of blocks on popular Internet services. While some Russians are using technological tools, such as VPNs, to evade such restrictions, many observers warn the nation risks becoming increasingly cut off from the outside world, as it was during Soviet times.

The result, many critics warn, 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.

“Disconnecting Russia from the global Internet means leaving Russian people only with state propaganda that is telling them that Ukrainian people are their enemies. This will silence the antiwar voices and it will hurt Ukraine,” said Natalia Krapiva, a digital rights attorney with the Internet freedom group Access Now.

Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.