Saturday, January 29, 2011

When Egypt cutoff the world

by Sanjeev Gupta.

At about 2215 UTC (that is GMT to you guys in the corner) on Thursday the 27th, the Egyptian Government pulled out its plug to the Internet. Here's the picture of google search traffic from Egypt:


Without going into the bigger picture of discontent in the Arab world, some background. Throughout the Color Revolutions, outside support, from Human Rights campaigners to emigres, has been critical. The world is watching, the world will remember heartens those where civil society has collapsed. But times have changed, and Radio Free Europe no longer strikes fear. Blame is now laid at the door of Twitter and Facebook.

And so, for example, during the "Green Revolution" in Iran, the Government interrupted links to traditional media sites, and to social media. Over the last year, Twitter et al have had repeated slowdowns in Tunisia, including reports of activists accounts hijacked. YouTube access had been spotty too. The problem, if you are the censor, is that people are creative. Mirror sites spring up, new domain names are registered, bystanders set up proxies ... . The blockage makes it harder, but not impossible, to communicate, and may even draw non-participants in. It is like putting up barricades to prevent crowds marching to the Plaza de la Revolucion. The crowds treat this as censorship and route around the barricades.

And so the Egyptian Government (or at least some part of it) decided to do things right. If you wish to stop people communicating, stop them!. Instead of blocking access to YouTube, Twitter, and an ever-increasing list of newly registered domain names and web sites, they just applied shears to the cables (metaphorically, see below).

Within 4 minutes (as I see my logs in Singapore), over 4000 networks in Egypt went dead. Stone cold dead. Effectively, the ISP routers on the Internet were told "bye" by Egyptian ISPs.

To come back to the barricades analogy, it is like the Egyptian Government abolished all street names and even streets. Good luck deciding to gather for a protest. Actually, this is still the wrong analogy.
Imagine all phones exchanges switched off. Oh wait, Bangladesh has done that before.

The Internet "works" on various levels, and censors target these levels. At the highest level, you may decide to block certain videos on YouTube (eg, China). This is finely targetted, and collateral damage is low. Or you may decide to block YouTube entirely (Pakistan in 2010). Or you may restrict all social media and user content (if you can define "all"), eg, China, Iran. You can go further, and effectively ban all web access except at Govt-monitored Internet kiosks, with no home accounts allowed, as Cuba does (there are 6 locations in Havana, with week-long waiting lists to use a 30 minute slot). However, all these methods have leakages. Which is what makes the Egyptian example instructive. They just switched off the Internet!

Before the event, there were, at my count, about 50 ISPs announcing networks from Egypt. 24 hours later, there are only 2 with any networks announced, Etisalat-Misr (down from 676 to 113), and Noor Data Networks (up from 83 to 85(!)). Everyone else seems gone. For a dramatic view of the reduction in the total number of networks on the Internet, see this graph, courtesy Renesys:


Throughout Friday, my view was that the links were disappearing because routers were being switched off. However, a more detailed view (again courtesy Renesys) (shown ahead) shows that the ISPs switched off one-by-one, probably as instructions were authenticated, and support staff told to start withdrawing routing announcements. The slow decay seems more indicative of staff logging into equipment one-by-one, and turning links off.
Noor Data Networks (NDN) is the odd case here. Throughout Friday, the speculation was that this was due to the Egyptian Stock Exchange being hosted via NDN, and that someone had allowed the markets to stay open. But Friday, and Saturday, are closed on the Egyptian stock exchange, so that makes little sense. What has been speculated is that NDN is owned by Ayman Nour, ex-MP and presidential candidate, who spent over 3 years in prison after challangeing Mubarak in 2005. Both Ayman Nour and his son, Noor Ayman Nour, have been involved in this week's protests. But as, 24 hrs later, NDN is still alive, either the Government is unwilling to drive up and pull the plug, or there are internal dissensions. Both bode well, in the sense that someone is asking questions.

In all this, the Egyptian Government's own sites have also become inaccesible. This does not bode well; it suggests that the authorities hit one big red button indiscriminately. That means we can no longer read official Press Releases, and we will never know the official version of events. Ah, well.

A small side-effect is that Egypt was a booming location for Arab websites to host their content. It was seen as a cheap, neutral, business-oriented hosting location. All these are also now non-reachable, so that is one less industry where Egypt can be a successful exporter.

There is probably a good note in all this for those who monitor freedom: we can look at ISP withdrawals of networks as a proxy, perhaps, of clampdowns. Probably not for China, where huge investments have been made in the Great Firewall of China, but other countries which may have to resort to blunt measures like this. And yet, does the next President of China, Xi Jinping, a known hawk, plan to have buttons next to his pillow? Press 1 and the Net goes dead, press 2 and the phone system? Imagine what Twitter, or YouTube, could do for the next man who stands up to a tank in Beijing. Now imagine if you were the strong man of China. What do you have nightmares about?

By Sunday lunch, Egypt time, the impact on business of this blackout will start being felt, and we may see some networks either returning, or some official communication from the authorities.

Till then, perhaps, the old headline from England describes it best: Fog in Channel, Europe cut off.

(Update, 1500 GMT Saturday: AP reports, via Al Jazeera, that the biggest blog site in China, Sina.com, is restricting searches on the world "Egypt". Searches bring up the message: According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny.)

It's a great time to be alive. It gives a whole new meaning to the word `contagion'. A research project idea for all ye economists: Measure the contagion which each of the revolutions triggered off for the stock markets of the dictatorships.

On a related note, see: Obama 'Internet kill switch' plan approved by US Senate panel by Grant Gross on TechWorld and Should Obama's 'internet kill switch' power be curbed? by Daniel Nasaw on BBC.

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