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Syrian Internet Is Off The Air

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A Baker’s Dozen, 2012 Edition

November 30, 2012 Comments (23) Views: 2398 Engineering, Governance, Internet

Could It Happen In Your Country?

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{Updated; see below for lists of countries for easier reference, and a special offer for WCIT attendees. —jim}

How hard is it to disconnect a country from the Internet, really?

That’s the number one question we’ve received about our analysis of the Egyptian and Syrian Internet blackouts, and it’s a reasonable question. If the Internet is so famously resilient, designed to survive wars and calamities, how can it fail so abruptly and completely at the national level?

The key to the Internet’s survival is the Internet’s decentralization — and it’s not uniform across the world. In some countries, international access to data and telecommunications services is heavily regulated. There may be only one or two companies who hold official licenses to carry voice and Internet traffic to and from the outside world, and they are required by law to mediate access for everyone else.

Under those circumstances, it’s almost trivial for a government to issue an order that would take down the Internet. Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet. Of course, this level of centralization also makes it much harder for the government to defend the nation’s Internet infrastructure against a determined opponent, who knows they can do a lot of damage by hitting just a few targets.

With good reason, most countries have gradually moved towards more diversity in their Internet infrastructure over the last decade. Sometimes that happens all by itself, as a side effect of economic growth and market forces, as many different companies move into the market and compete to provide the cheapest international Internet access to the citizenry.

Even then, though, there’s often a government regulator standing by, allowing (or better yet, encouraging) the formation of a diverse web of direct connections to international providers. Here’s the problem: increased diversity at the international frontier often spells less money for the national incumbent provider (typically the old telephone company, often owned by the government itself). Without some strong legal prodding and guidance from the telecoms regulator, significant diversification in smaller markets with a strong incumbent can take a long, long time.

Here’s a map of the world, with countries colored according to the Internet diversity at the international frontier. We did a census, from our own view of the global Internet routing table, of all the domestic providers in each country who have direct connections (visible in routing) to foreign providers.

 

renesys.risk.internet.disconnect.png

 

As a first cut at a diversity metric, this makes a lot of sense; it’s easy to compute, and fairly objective (an NSP either has a foreign transit provider visible in the routing tables, or it doesn’t). You can think of this, to first approximation, as the number of phone calls (or legal writs, or infrastructure attacks) that would have to be performed in order to decouple the domestic Internet from the global Internet.

  • If you have only 1 or 2 companies at your international frontier, we classify your country as being at severe risk of Internet disconnection. Those 61 countries include places like Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Libya, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, and Yemen.
  • If you have fewer than 10 service providers at your international frontier, your country is probably exposed to some significant risk of Internet disconnection. Ten providers also seems to be the threshold below which one finds significant additional risks from infrastructure sharing — there may be a single cable, or a single physical-layer provider who actually owns most of the infrastructure on which the various providers offer their services. In this category, we place 72 countries, including Oman, Benin, Botswana, Rwanda, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, Armenia, and Iran. Disconnection wouldn’t be trivial, but it wouldn’t be all that difficult. Egypt falls into this category as well; it took the Mubarak government several days to hunt down and kill the last connections, but in the end, the blackout succeeded.
  • If you have at least 10 internationally-connected service providers, but no more than 40, your risk of disconnection is fairly low. Given a determined effort, it’s plausible that the Internet could be shut down over a period of days or weeks, but it would be hard to implement and even harder to maintain that state of blackout. There are 58 countries in this situation, ranging from Bahrain (at the small end) to Mexico (at the largest end). India, Israel, Ecuador, Chile, Vietnam, and (perhaps surprisingly) China are all in this category.So is Afghanistan, reminding us that sometimes national Internet diversity is the product of regional fragmentation and severe technical challenges. It’s true; the government in Kabul is powerless to turn off the national Internet, because it’s built out of diverse service from various satellite providers, as well as Uzbek, Iranian, and Pakistani terrestrial transit.
  • Finally, if you have more than 40 providers at your frontier, your country is likely to be extremely resistant to Internet disconnection. There are just too many paths into and out of the country, too many independent providers who would have to be coerced or damaged, to make a rapid countrywide shutdown plausible to execute. A government might significantly impair Internet connectivity by shutting down large providers, but there would still be a deep pool of persistent paths to the global Internet. In this category are the big Internet economies: Canada, the USA, the Netherlands, etc., about 32 countries in all.

So, could what happened to Egypt and Syria happen in your country? Hopefully not. But it’s an important question that companies ask Renesys about all the time, as they decide which countries might reasonably host their new data centers.

Governments that want to encourage direct foreign investment in ICT should have this in mind as they head to Dubai next week for the World Conference on International Telecommunications. Next to Internet performance and stability, the political risks of Internet disconnection are starting to appear on due diligence checklists, as companies consider where to make their investments in global cloud infrastructure.

 



Postscript (3 Dec 2012)

Wow, a lot of interest in this subject so far. Thanks for the comments and questions. Keep in mind that we’re starting with a simple maturity model of foreign/domestic interconnection diversity — factoring in physical interconnection and the ‘hidden entanglements’ among the logical relationships is the next step. It’s interesting that most people who are suggesting modifications to this model believe that their country is much more vulnerable to disconnection. Nobody has claimed that their country is more resilient than we give them credit for!

I’m collecting a list of most-commented countries, and we’ll revisit these in some more detail in a future post.

Also, many have asked for a browsable list of the countries that appear in the map. Here’s a table of the ISO country codes for each of the four categories. If you’d like more detail on these countries, the relationships among autonomous system providers in them, the size of the incumbents, their international transit arrangements, and the like, I have to recommend that you check out our Market Intelligence service. If you’re trying to understand how the online world really fits together at the provider-customer level, region by region and market by market, Market Intelligence provides the best roadmap of who’s connected to whom in the service provider industry, from San Francisco to Sao Paolo, from Benin to Vladivostok.

If you’re a registered attendee at the WCIT conference in Dubai this week, send me your accreditation and we’ll set you up with a free evaluation account.

Severe Risk Significant Risk Low Risk Resistant

AD
AI
AN
AW
AX
BB
BQ
BT
CF
CI
CK
CU
DJ
DM
ET
FO
GD
GF
GL
GM
GN
GP
GY
IO
JE
KM
KN
KP
LS
LY
MC
MF
MH
ML
MM
MR
NF
NR
PF
PM
PW
RE
SB
SO
SR
SS
ST
SX
SY
SZ
TC
TD
TK
TL
TM
TN
TO
UZ
VA
WF
YE

AE
AG
AM
AZ
BF
BI
BJ
BM
BN
BO
BS
BW
BY
BZ
CD
CG
CM
CW
DO
EG
FJ
FM
GA
GE
GG
GI
GQ
GU
HT
IM
IR
JM
JO
KG
KY
LA
LK
LR
MA
ME
MG
MN
MO
MQ
MT
MU
MV
MW
NA
NC
NE
OM
PG
PK
PY
QA
RW
SA SC
SD
SL
SM
SV
TG
TJ
TT
UG
UY
VG
VI
VU
WS
AF
AL
AO
BA
BD
BG
BH
CL
CN
CO
CR
CY
DZ
EC
EE
GH
GR
GT
HN
HR
HU
IL
IN
IQ
IS
KE
KH
KR
KW
KZ
LB
LI
LT
LU
LV
MD
MK
MX
MZ
NG
NI
NP
NZ
PA
PE
PR
PS
PT
RS
SI
SK
TH
TR
TW
TZ
VE
VN
ZA
ZM
ZW
AR
AT
AU
BE
BR
CA
CH
CZ
DE
DK
ES
FI
FR
GB
HK
ID
IE
IT
JP
MY
NL
NO
PH
PL
RO
RU
SE
SG
UA
US

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23 Responses to Could It Happen In Your Country?

  1. Bob says:

    Seems like physical pathways would be a limiting factor, even with multiple providers. They are all sharing the very few long-haul fiber paths to/from a country.
    The next step in the analysis should be to plot out how many fiber paths exist. Even with multiple paths, some of them land in close geographic proximity. Robustness could be improved, but carriers prioritize executive bonus checks ahead of hardening infrastructure.

  2. Mark says:

    Bingo, Bob. Australia, for example, would not be nearly such a light shade of green. Even without such considerations, I wonder at it; most .au ISPs get their intl transit through Telstra these days…

  3. Julio says:

    I would not mark México in that light green. Remember that there is Carlos Slim’s monopoly on telecomunications making him the richest man on earth.

  4. Ray says:

    Hello
    There are a little question in this graphic.
    Why Taiwan is “LOW RISK” ?

  5. Sam says:

    What you don’t realise is that in USA everything is controlled by a few major carriers and at times govt does not have any control over them. Also in USA you are always monitored for everything. So much for the freedom there.

  6. Timmy says:

    I understand how the analysis was done, but it (necessarily) leaves out several factors, for instance size. Andorra, Monaco and Vatican City are listed as having a severe risk when they probably all have Wi-Fi access to the surrounding country, Italy, which is listed as low.
    Still good and interesting reading.

  7. Sean Palmer says:

    I think your “severe risk” list at the bottom is missing GUF, for French Guiana. I know it’s not technically a separate nation, but you have it colored on the map.

  8. CptSwing says:

    Even if diversity of service providers could help, the bad news in many cases are that physical control of a few facilities will have the same blackout or almost-blackout effect. E.g., the hypotetical mad dictator or terrorist group that seizes control of Fortaleza (Brazil) cable landing facilities would put not only Brazil, but also Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay internet access to their knees.

  9. Louis Lepper says:

    Seems a little strange that NZ is listed as resistant. As far as I understand we only have one provider at our international frontier. (Excluding a few really old irrelevant cables)

  10. Christian says:

    The map shows Bulgaria as low risk but its code (BG) is in the “Resistant” box. Which one is it?

  11. Oswulf says:

    Something is wrong about Thailand (TH) too. Shown on the graphic as Severe Risk but in the table as Low Risk. Given that CAT Telecom has a monopoly of all international Internet connections in Thailand I suspect the Severe Risk is correct.
    And penninsula Malaysia looks strange on the map – split into two equal halves – though the lower half might be meant to be Singapore.

  12. Suzanne Swan says:

    Your reasoning based on the number of internet providers a country has related to whether they could silence the internet is somewhat flawed, as other comments have noted. Canada has only a few providers (and many more, much better ones, on their frontier which we cannot access) but Canadian providers are all price fixing and benefit from a monoploy situation. Cutting off the internet would be easy, all would be in agreement. We spend a lot of time in Canada anyway with distressingly poor internet connections due to infrastructure problems. Turkey, by contrast, has numerous excellent providers (many using networks beyond their own frontiers) but, at last count, there were some 1500 or more web sites blocked. Turkey hasn’t shut down the internet to date but could do so at a moment’s notice for political reasons.

  13. Thommas says:

    Laos should fall into the “Severe Risk” category, Laos have more than two ISPs but all external connections are going trough a internet censorship organization, so even if an ISP setsup a direct peering/transit with a external ISP all the international infrastructure is still controlled by one govermental organization.

  14. Boniface says:

    This type of comparison may bot always carry the day. In countries like Kenya, we may have many providers but all cables basically follow the same path. Meaning you just have to dig a 1KM trench and with it goes all the internet connection upstream. Then other countries have only one trunk carrier after the landing points making them very vulnerable. The only option would be by using VSAT.

  15. M says:

    Well, Åland islands are in fact a Finnish autonomy but is under Finlands laws so why it is in bigger risk than Finland of internet shutdown seems strange. Finland is not imo one to dictate freedom of speach therefor Åland is by no means at risk. But thanks it was amusing to think that it would be.

  16. brice says:

    Interesting thoughts. I do wonder though if say here in the US a few of the oceanic fiber cables were to be severed what the cascade effect would be. Probably wouldn’t be an immediate blackout I do think though that it would render the remaining access fairly useless as the load balance would shift and may not be recoverable without extensive work that the national sized ISP’s would be willing or able to do based on the nature of the sever.

  17. Patricio says:

    You equate “shutting down the internet” with “shutting down connections at the international frontier”. The two may be equivalent for countries heavily dependent on foreign resources, but international disconnection by itself would not do the trick for countries that are mostly self sufficient. The US and China are two such examples. If the US were to disconnect from the rest of the world, domestic users would still be able to update their Facebook status or keep tweeting. But such a disconnection would be felt as a global Internet shutdown for all the rest of us!

  18. jon says:

    we US citizens have been told recently that our president has absolute authority over our lives to include the internet. so as freedom loving people it seems that we are extremely vulnerable to being shut down at any instant with no requirement to tell us why it was done. any contrary views welcomed by me.

  19. Fahad says:

    SA showed as Significant Risk! Although there are more than 2 and less than 10 providers but all of them are local providers and they should use one national proxy. So it is just a matter of one command to shut-down all Internet access from whole the Kingdom.

  20. Yax says:

    Hi,
    The text says, that Algeria is in the “severe” group, but the map, and the browsable list says otherwise – which is true?

  21. Avi says:

    There is definitely a problem of consistency between the text, the map, and the table:The text says Algeria is severe risk (which I believe), while both the map and the table list DZ as low risk. Same thing for Bulgaria.

  22. Ian says:

    Vanuatu should certainly be on the severe risk for it has already been cut off, though not for political reasons. The loss of Intelsat’s IS-804 in January 2005 caused the internet, international telephone service and real time financial authorisation of cards to be lost. I understand that other island nations were similarly affected. I am not persuaded that the situation in the SW Pacific is significantly better today.

  23. Tok Janggut says:

    Malaysia is NOT “Resistant”. Probably only from natural or cable snapping accidents since there’s a bunch of cables running in and out the country.
    There is only one major telco in the country, Telekom Malaysia/Axiata which owns the international gateways and local loops. Full equity control is owned by the government and ruling party since it’s a semi-government company. Jaring also falls into the same category.
    Due to the minimum 30% Malay-race ownership by law and large stakes owned by the state investment vehicles (Khazanah Nasional, Permodalan Nasional, Employee Provident Fund, Amanah Sahama Berhad), the only other large ISP (Time) and cellular providers (Digi, Maxis) are effectively state owned.
    So in short, if the state says “snip” – all of it will go dark.

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