Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Syrian Internet Outage Raises Question “Could It Happen Here?”

Syria disappeared from the Internet yesterday. Everyone knows that by now. But one fact that didn’t resonate quite as readily in the first reports is how quickly it happened. At the order of someone — presumably an official within the government of President Bashar al-Assad — an entire nation’s communications infrastructure ceased to function within about four minutes.

When you remember the basic fundamental truths about the Internet — the part about how it was designed to be used in the event of a nuclear war and thus has redundancy and survivability in mind — one can’t help but wonder how such a thing could happen.

It comes down to control, and creating a single, easily accessible choke point run by loyal people. Every single Internet connection in Syria is funneled through a single government agency that authorizes them all — the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment — and indeed all of them are run out of the same building.

Today, the folks at Renesys, who were the first to notice Syria’s government-ordered outage (for it could be nothing other than that), have tackled the question of how readily what has happened in Syria — and in Libya and Egypt before it — could happen in other countries.

Here’s its map. Countries where there’s a significant risk — speaking logistically, not necessarily politically — of a government-ordered shutdown are shown in darker green. The lighter the green, the lower the risk.

Renesys, in its corporate blog, breaks it down like this:

If a country has more than 40 companies providing Internet infrastructure at its international border, it is categorized as “resistant,” meaning that it would be difficult if not impossible under whatever circumstances for anyone to order a coordinated takedown of the Internet. There are simply too many moving parts to make it a realistic worry. The good news is that much of the world is in this category, including the U.S., Canada, most of Europe and Russia.

There are two other categories where the risk incrementally increases — infamously authoritarian China is notably in the “low risk” category — and the last one is “severe risk.” This one includes 61 different countries, and Syria is one, where there are only one or two companies providing Internet infrastructure at the international border. No surprise this group includes places where there has been a lot of political turmoil in the last year: Tunisia, Algeria, Turkmenistan, Libya and Yemen, but also the usual suspects among the world’s harsher dictatorships: Cuba and North Korea. Another notable member of this club is Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma), which has recently been opening up, (President Obama visited there last week) but which actually did pull the Internet plug in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Internet remains off in Syria. Google has restarted its @Speak2Tweet Twitter account, that allows people to call a number and leave voice messages via Twitter. I have no idea if the person in the message below is actually in Syria, but if he is, his message is especially heart-breaking.

Here is a National Public Radio Story about all this. It mentions, almost in passing, some computers with satellite connections that have been given to members of the Syrian opposition by the U.S. Department of State. I’m going to try to learn more about them next.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle