In context: It would be a massive understatement to say the rest of the world's relationship with Russia has become 'strained' in recent weeks. Following an unprovoked invasion into Ukraine by its larger neighbor, countries all over the globe have slapped Russia with unprecedented sanctions, and many major American corporations have followed suit.
Oil giants like Shell have now refused to purchase Russian fuel, and fast food chains like McDonald's have elected to close all the restaurants they've opened in Russia. Even tech giants are joining in -- with a few notable exceptions, such as Cloudflare. Despite public pressure, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince refuses to disable access to its services in Russia following a round of discussions with "government and civil society experts."
Cloudflare, for the unaware, is best known for providing websites and web services with protection against DDoS attacks, hackers, bot swarms while improving site load times and caching for ordinary users (among other things).
Right now, Cloudflare still provides its services to Russian citizens and businesses. However, it blocks access for entities affiliated with Russian financial institutions, influence campaigns, and government organizations related to Donetsk and Luhansk.
Prince explained why it refuses to shut off access to those first two groups in a lengthy blog post published on Sunday. In it, he notes that "Russia needs more Internet access, not less." He elaborates as follows:
As the conflict has continued, we've seen a dramatic increase in requests from Russian networks to worldwide media, reflecting a desire by ordinary Russian citizens to see world news beyond that provided within Russia.
We've also seen an increase in Russian blocking and throttling efforts, combined with Russian efforts to control the content of the media operating inside Russia with a new "fake news" law.
The Russian government itself, over the last several years, has threatened repeatedly to block certain Cloudflare services and customers. Indiscriminately terminating service would do little to harm the Russian government, but would both limit access to information outside the country, and make significantly more vulnerable those who have used us to shield themselves as they have criticized the government.
In short, Prince fears that terminating Cloudflare's functionality in Russia "indiscriminately" would lead to fewer Russian citizens seeing past the propoganda and put those same citizens at risk of government reprisal should they choose to fight back digitally. Indeed, Prince goes on to say that Russias's government would actively "celebrate" Cloudflare's shutdown in the country.
Overall, the Cloudflare crew (or at least its leadership team) believes providing average Russians with a more "open, private, and secure internet" is more important than punishing the country as a whole, and will ultimately do more good for Ukraine.
Even if Prince's beliefs are well-founded, Cloudflare will undoubtedly continue to receive pressure from the public and Ukrainian officials until its Russian services are canceled outright. Whether or not Cloudflare can withstand that level of heat long-term remains to be seen.
Regardless of what Cloudflare or any other individual corporation does, we hope the conflict in Eastern Europe comes to a peaceful end sooner rather than later.