Can the Internet Tame Governments? – Part I

Debate rages in the West about whether the internet in authoritarian states is a tool for winning freedoms or another device for control. In the wake of Egypt’s mass protests emerged the first case of a government’s attempt to sever an entire nation from internet access. This YaleGlobal series explores governments and the internet, and which is the taming force. The first article, written by James Cowie, chief technology officer at Renesys Corporation, a network security company, explains technological factors and how Egypt’s low service diversity allowed authorities to kill access easily by requiring a few internet service providers to disconnect. The shutdown to suppress government criticism carries high costs over the long-term, though, both in terms of economy and reputation. Governments worldwide must firmly repudiate internet deprivation as a tool for controlling political dissent, Cowie contends, or risk losing investment and hurt economic development. Egypt’s internet blackout only heightened protesters’ determination and directed new attention to their complaints. – YaleGlobal

Can the Internet Tame Governments? – Part I

Egypt’s government pulled a kill-switch on its internet, yet protesters’ resilience endured
James Cowie
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The day the internet died in Egypt: An empty internet café in Cairo (top); protester in Tahrir square demands the restoration of Facebook, which has been their organizing tool

MANCHESTER, NH: For years, the internet community has monitored the evolution of online communication restrictions imposed by governments such as Iran and China. On 28 January, Egypt raised the bar on censorship with its “kill-switch” strategy, eliminating internet connectivity and suppressing data communications nationwide for five days. Against such a strategy, traditional circumventions such as mirror sites, proxy servers and encryption were useless. Egyptian internet users, about 20 percent of the population, were left with few options, turning to antiquated dialup modems, ham radio or satellite phones to reconstruct a few painful connections to the outside world. 

Many observers expressed surprise, believing the internet was impervious to political attack, capable of routing around the damage. In the popular imagination, the internet is the “unkillable network,” designed to preserve communications during nuclear war. Yet the government of Egypt managed to disconnect millions, in the space of about 20 minutes, and restored service just as abruptly five days later. 

In retrospect, the Egyptian "kill switch" was simultaneously a spectacular technical success and a mystifying strategic blunder. Killing the internet carried high economic costs, tens of millions of dollars per day in Egypt, and suggested a government driven to desperate, unsophisticated ends. Nonetheless, advocates for free communication around the globe immediately asked – could other governments implement such a kill switch?

To understand the potential for future application of the kill-switch concept, it’s helpful to review technical factors behind internet resilience as well as inherent political vulnerabilities. The internet is a worldwide network of networks, built from myriad pairs of contractual relationships among internet service providers. The software protocols these ISPs use to communicate with one another were designed with a specific mission: to reliably carry information between any two computers, regardless of where on earth they’re located, using intermediate ISPs as go-betweens when no direct commercial relationship exists.

Even when individual ISPs run into trouble as happens every day in every country – cables snap, routers crash, electrical power is lost – the internet automatically figures out, in a decentralized way, how to route around the problem and keep data flowing. The source of this resiliency is a globally distributed, self-healing map, called the global routing table, which finds a way around almost any kind of local damage in a matter of seconds.

The operative phrase here is “almost any kind.” Networks are not uniformly resilient. If too many critical neighboring elements in a low-diversity part of the network are removed together, an entire region can be disconnected from the whole.

If one were to cut the lines between a home and the internet, for example, no traffic could flow; that user is cut off from other users. The rest of the system continues to function normally. If authorities were to shut down an ISP with a court order, then again, its clients are cut off from the internet, unless they have a backup ISP subscription. Larger internet-dependent enterprises, tens of thousands worldwide, routinely buy service from multiple ISPs for this reason: to survive loss of a single provider and stay connected.

To silence all of Egypt and its modern internet-based economy, authorities only needed to disconnect five or six ISPs, a stunningly low figure. For other countries, the answer depends on how diverse and open the local telecommunications market is, and the degree of control over operator actions granted by the national telecommunications law as well as factors beyond human control, such as geography.

Geographically, Egypt is relatively well-positioned for international transit diversity, as it lands each of the most important submarine fiber-optic cables heading from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, and can take advantage of service from a wide range of international internet providers. Egypt’s vulnerability was ultimately determined by human factors: the diversity of its internet market and its regulatory framework. 

Egypt has made significant progress towards telecommunications liberalization in recent years, gradually reducing the central role of Telecom Egypt and encouraging investment from competing fixed-line and mobile internet providers. In this sense, they should have been more resilient than the least developed countries, in which the incumbent provider – typically, an old state-run phone company that owns most of the physical infrastructure – creates a single point of control over competing providers.

In more diverse markets such as Egypt, with dozens of large and small ISPs competing for business, resilience is determined by the number of providers with independent connections to international carriers. Ideally, those providers would purchase and operate their international connections without going hat in hand to the incumbent to lease underlying physical network infrastructure. 

Here, then, were the roots of the Egyptian disconnection: despite several years of liberalization, the nation still had too few providers with direct interconnections to international carriers,and lingering reliance on Telecom Egypt for much of the underlying physical infrastructure. More critically, the Egyptian regulatory framework requires all ISPs to apply for internet licenses, and all licensed providers must comply with government directives during times of national emergency or face loss of license.

Unsurprisingly, the large “Class A” ISPs in Egypt – except Noor Group, which remained online for three more days – went dark in quick succession just after midnight on January 28th. The logic was compelling, but frustrating: If the government issues a lawful order to licensed providers to shut down their part of the national internet, each will do so, to preserve licenses and comply with local law. 

Other countries that have employed targeted blocking of specific websites and content networks to suppress dissent, such as Iran and Tunisia, didn’t dare disconnect their economies from the internet as a political weapon, though their national telecommunications market diversity and regulatory frameworks would easily have supported such an action.

China’s "Great Firewall" is another example of fine-grained state information control, wielded with precision to block specific websites and content networks. Through techniques that range from IP address blocking to the injection of false answers to queries for domains like, China’s internet carefully controls dissident speech while retaining most economic benefits of nationwide connectivity.

Implementing an Egypt-style internet blockade has the potential to disrupt foreign investment and reduce employment in the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. Just as the internet brings jobs, unreliable connectivity can make them vanish. To cite just one direct consequence of the Egyptian outage, Vodafone immediately hired 100 new telephone support employees in New Zealand to replace functions provided by its Cairo call center.

The investment community will evaluate stability, risk and overall costs for Egypt and its reputation after five days of internet blackout. The temptation is strong to write down existing investments and look for regional partners with an internet strategy that promotes stability and open communication. Other countries in the region, including Turkey, Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, share Egypt’s goal of attaining regional internet leadership. Like Egypt, they dream of growing a vibrant ICT sector that can provide jobs for their university graduates. Some may capitalize on Egypt’s strategic mistake, depicting themselves as friendlier environments for internet investment.

Governments worldwide should firmly repudiate internet deprivation as a tool for controlling political dissent. Without such a clarification, lingering uncertainty over routine shutdown could set back foreign investment and economic development by years.

By shutting down the nation’s internet for a few days, the Egyptian government solved the protestors' biggest challenge: attracting sympathetic attention of an engaged global audience. In their pursuit of peaceful political transition, the Egyptian people have demonstrated that human networks, with or without the support of the internet, are surprisingly resilient, too.

James Cowie, Yale ‘91, is chief technology officer at Renesys Corporation, a network security company focusing on internet infrastructure monitoring. His recent research focuses on mapping and analyzing the structure and dynamics of regional internet ecosystems, the interaction of regulation and competition in emerging internet transit markets, and the derivation of internet stability and diversity metrics.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization