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The Libyan Internet's So-Gray-It's-Almost-Blackout

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, March 8 2011

Photo by Sebastià Giral

There's more than one way to kick a country off the global Internet, as the saying goes. That's the conclusion of James Cowie, the CTO at the New Hampshire company Renesys who has been tracking the state of the Middle East and northern Africa's Internet connectivity by monitoring the flow of digital TCP/IP traffic in and out of countries. Whereas Egypt's Internet blackout last month was a complete turning off of the Internet apparatus in that country, Libya's Internet has been sedated to the point of be almost, but not completely, unresponsive.

Cowie theorizes that, "by taking a softer route to shutdown, the government deprived the opposition of much of the international 'flash crowd' of attention and outrage that an unambiguous "kill switch" tactic might have garnered." Structurally, the Libyan regime was in perhaps an even better position than Egypt's was to make real their judgment on whether their people should get online; that's because Libya has just one real ISP tying the country to the global network where Egypt had five. Worth noting is that Libyans are far more connected by cell phones than the Internet; Internet penetration is in the single digits, whereas mobile penetration is up near 100%. Also worth noting is that last names of the executives running the main ISP, Libya Telecom and Technology, and biggest mobile company both happen to be "Qaddafi."

Even with Cowie's post, the technical details of what's actually happened to Libya's Internet are still fuzzy -- which is as much a reminder of the difficulties of knowing what's happening inside that country as it is that our understanding of the nuances of politically-charged Internet shutdowns needs some refining. Alas, if recent history's any guide, we're going to get some practice.