Intimidation cut off Egypt from the Internet, not a 'kill switch'

Amid two weeks' worth of blather about whether the U.S. should have a kill switch for the Internet just like Egypt does are a few inconsistencies that make it look a lot like there is no actual kill switch, and that what Egypt really did relied more on old-fashioned intimidation than on brilliant control of its networks.

This morning's New York Times lays out the steps in Egypt's emergency response in which "In a span of minutes just after midnight on Jan. 28, a technologically advanced, densely wired country with more than 20 million people online was essentially severed from the global Internet."

Not the story most people believed at the time, but nifty nonetheless.

Hosni Mubarak's government didn't shut off Internet communication altogether; it just shut off links connecting intertubes within Egypt from those outside.

Not a "kill switch," really, at least not in the sense of this quote from a Jan. 28 NYT story:

“Almost nobody in Egypt has Internet connectivity. I’ve never seen it happen at this scale,” aid Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company based in New Hampshire that tracks Internet traffic.

Egypt didn't cut off all traffic on the Internet. It shut off the relatively limited number of high-bandwidth connections linking internetworks inside the country with the Internet outside. It didn't do much of anything, apparently, to cut off traffic inside the country, or to cut off communications among the protesters.

That's still a pretty powerful weapon, though. One switch or system that can shut off all the links owned by telcos or universities or ISPs or multinationals so no Internet traffic gets in or out of the country?

Not so, according to Human Rights First, a U.S.-based non-profit group that funds research, litigation and lobbying to promote U.S. foreign policies supporting human rights and intercede in conflicts overseas on the side of refugees and populations at risk in situations like the one in Egypt.

The NYT is basically right about the limited number of connections and how the Mubarak government got them shut down, according to the HRF analysis.

It's wrong in presenting it mostly as a technical achievement.

Not all Egypt's ISPs went down during the outage, for one thing. And few if any of them went offline because Hosni Mubarak pulled an Internet Lever of Doom.

They went offline because the government leaned on them and, in some cases, physically threatened the operators of the networks into shutting off the international connections.

It was individual, craftsmanlike, one-intimidation-at-a-time thuggery, plain and simple, according to HRF.

It wasn't universal, though, and wasn't accomplished all at once.

One ISP, Noor Group, stayed up three days after the rest of the network went down, even though it relied on the networks of other ISPs for its international connections. There is no explanation for why it didn't fold like the other ISPs.

It's not just the robustness of the Internet that makes it difficult to shut down. It's the stubbornness of the people that run it and find clandestine ways to make connections work when official channels are closed by force.

Bloody-minded independence and an inherent inability to follow orders: What the Internet is made of.

Below is HRF's description of the physical shutdown: here's the NYT's illustration of how it happened:

The evidence for how Egypt’s connection to the internet was shut down is fairly clear.  On January 27th between 10:15PM GMT and 10:35PM GMT, Egypt’s main internet service providers removed approximately 90% of their routes for what is known as the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP).  BGP is the method by which networking hardware connects to independent smaller networks, known as autonomous systems (AS). With  the BGP routes blocked, Egypt’s citizens went from being connected to the entire world wide web to connecting only on  50+ smaller networks that were unable to see each other or anyone outside of Egypt.  Between 9:30 GMT and 10:00 GMT on the morning of February 2nd the internet service providers resumed broadcasting  on the original BGP routes and full connectivity was quickly restored.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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