Egypt has officially cut off Internet access to the country, marking the first time in the history of the Internet when a nation-state has gone dark. Other nations, though, seem reluctant to follow suit.
Renesys, a provider of Internet marketing data and security services, gathered data from hundreds of Internet service providers and found that within an hour Egyptian telecom providers had shut down local networks.
James Cowie, chief technology officer of Renesys, said the service providers simply shut down their own networks, though they did not prevent traffic from flowing through the major fiber optic cables that go through Egyptian territory. A user in Egypt trying to pull up a Google page would get a message that the server was unavailable.
Reports surfaced that that Syria might be attempting to control local networks and even cut off access. But Cowie said there is no evidence of that. If anything their connectivity got a little better, he said. In Tunisia, the Internet seemed unaffected - by either the government or anyone else.
Cowie said the disappearance of Egypt from the Internet is not due to the rash of denial of service attacks that some groups called for. The signature would be very different, as instead of a wholesale cut off there would be sporadic outages.
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Renesys gets the phone book from other providers. That phone book essentially shows the address of every provider in the world. By looking at what routes the data packets take on their way to Egypt it can see the general shape of the country's Internet connections. It's basically what the Internet thinks the best way to get to Egypt is, he said.
At about 7 p.m. Eastern Time, he noticed that Telecom Egypt was the first to cut off networks, followed by other service providers. That indicates that the system is not automated, but probably involves the regulator or other government agency making a phone call and asking. It is part of the problem of licensed telecommunications, he said. You aren't going to risk losing your license. One surprise is that cutting off access was possible at all. Egypt has a relatively diverse telecom landscape, both internal and external, so the fact that the government could reach every provider is worrying, Cowie said.
One reason Syria and Tunisia might not cut off access is economics. Cowie said if the connections do not come back by Monday, when the global markets open, there could be serious complications for the Egyptian economy. Trading, for example, won't work. Even though there are fewer businesses in Tunisia that depend on the Internet, they are a bigger slice of the economy. Syria is in a similar situation.
Cowie noted that Iran, which did attempt to restrict access to the outside world, has a robust ISP market inside the country. That means that while there is a lot of connectivity within Iran, there is little to the outside world, making it a much easier situation for the government. Since a lot of Internet economic activity is within Iran, losing outside access matters less.
Egypt, he added, will be an interesting test case because it was seen as a natural hub for telecommunications. Many of the fiber optic cables that connect with Europe go through the Suez Canal, and Egypt has most of the connections with European providers. But if businesses are spooked that their communications could be cut off, that looks a lot less realistic.
All that said, Cowie noted that Internet access is important, but not a be-all and end-all. People in Egypt have bigger problems than not being able to access Google, he said.
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