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Egypt, Off Switches, and Internet Fragility

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, February 16 2011

"How the Internet Works;" illustration by Derrick Mosley, photo by Andrew Simone

You might recall that a few weeks back, the Egyptian regime turned off the Internet in that country in the early days of the people's revolt there. How was that possible? In the New York Times today, James Glanz and John Markoff lay the story out like something of a mystery, but one with a fairly simple explanation:

[A]s Egyptian engineers begin to assess fragmentary evidence and their own knowledge of the Egyptian Internet’s construction, they are beginning to understand what, in effect, hit them. Interviews with many of those engineers, as well as an examination of data collected around the world during the blackout, indicate that the government exploited a devastating combination of vulnerabilities in the national infrastructure.

For all the Internet’s vaunted connectivity, the Egyptian government commanded powerful instruments of control: it owns the pipelines that carry information across the country and out into the world.

Internet experts say similar arrangements are more common in authoritarian countries than is generally recognized. In Syria, for example, the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment dominates the infrastructure, and the bulk of the international traffic flows through a single pipeline to Cyprus. Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries have the same sort of dominant, state-controlled carrier.

In other words, the Egyptian political establishment controlled the Internet infrastructure that connected Egypt to the rest of the world, and they shut it off. And really, Glanz and Markoff point out, that's not that unusual a situation; countries like Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are in similar boats.

Here's a place were you can make the case that the Internet's origin myth ("they built it to survive nuclear attack!") has done the Internet and those of us who use it a disservice. There's a certain fragility baked into the system, not the least of which goes back to the fact that they digital bits that make up Internet traffic have to flow along something -- tubes, if you will -- and that often, as was the case with Egypt, those lines are under either the direct or indirect control of the government.

Columbia Law professor Eben Moglen is calling for the development and deployment "Freedom Box" personal servers.

Also in the Glanz and Markoff piece is a look at one interesting detail that emerged from the Egyptian Internet turnoff: why did what seemed to be the dropping of an iron curtain around Eygpt completely disable the Internet in Egypt? As the authors tell it, it was a ripple effect. "Servers, cables and fiber-optic lines were largely up and running," they write, "but too confused or crippled to carry information save a dribble of local e-mail traffic and domestic Web sites whose Internet circuitry somehow remained accessible." Much of what Egyptians are regularly connecting to exists outside the country's borders. So from their reading of the situation, they Internet in Egypt was made vulnerable by the fact that it was at once locally controlled and globally dependent.

Egypt's Internet shutoff has triggered a mini boom of interest in ways that the Internet can be architected to be more resilient, more oriented towards protecting and equipping its users. Also in the Time's today is a profile by profile by Jim Dwyer of  Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen and his Freedom Boxes, personal servers of a sort that run free software, designed, according to the Freedom Box Foundation, "to create and preserve personal privacy."