Egypt's 'Net blockage an 'Armageddon approach'

Cutting off all Internet access 'is on a different level entirely,' says Rensys CTO

The Internet blockade imposed by the Egyptian government in response to growing civilian unrest is unprecedented, both in its nature and scope, according to network monitoring firms.

Unlike other incidents where governments in Iran, Tunisia and elsewhere tried to control the flow of information by throttling specific Internet services and sites, the Egyptian government seems to have simply pulled the plug on all Internet services nationwide.

As of this morning, just a few dozen networks inside the country, including the Egyptian stock exchange, appeared to be up and running. Usually, between 3,000 and 3,500 are operating on a daily basis, according to Internet monitoring firm Renesys . It is still not entirely clear what these networks are or how they are still up and running given the total shutdown of Internet connectivity.

"This is on a different level entirely," said James Cowie, CTO at Renesys. "There's no cutting off the finger to save the patient here. This really is the Armageddon approach."

Countries such as Iran , Tunisia, Russia, China and Pakistan have offered recent examples of how governments can control information by shutting off access to specific services such as Twitter , YouTube, Facebook and Google .

Most of these surgical approaches, however, have been vulnerable to countermeasures , Cowie said. So, for example, when a government blocked access to Twitter, citizens could still access the service by using a proxy server.

"But when you shut down the Internet, the proxy server becomes useless, because you can't get to it. It's very crude, it's a very blunt instrument, but it is extremely effective," Cowie said. "There's no alternative, unless you can build your own Internet."

The only other nation to have taken a similar approach was Burma, which in 2007 shut off all Internet connectivity in the midst of violent civilian protests.

But the situation in Egypt is vastly different because the country is much bigger, and is dependent on the Internet to a much greater extent than Burma, said Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks, a network security firm that has been monitoring Internet traffic to and from Egypt.

This chart from Arbor Networks illustrates the dramatic cut-off in traffic to and from Egypt.

"From a purely technical standpoint, there may be parallels" between Egypt and Burma, Labovitz said. "But what's different is that the level of diversity and the level of Internet penetration in Egypt is significantly higher and on a different scale than Burma or Iran. Egypt has one of the most substantial Internet infrastructures in the region. It's much more developed and is a much more developed part of the economy."

According to Cowie and Labovitz, Egypt's Internet censorship appears to have been well coordinated and was done fairly quickly. The most likely scenario: someone from the government called key ISPs in the country asking them to shut off links to the Internet.

The actual task of doing that itself would have been fairly simple and would have required little more than small changes to a couple of lines of code on core BGP routers. "It looks like the BGP routes were withdrawn," Labovitz said, resulting in all Internet routes to Egypt essentially disappearing.

Just because that kind of tactic worked in Egypt does not mean it's a model that would work elsewhere, Cowie said. In this case, Egyptian authorities were able to achieve a shutdown by calling what would have been a relatively small number of providers. By comparison, in the U.S., thousands of ISPs would need to be involved in such a move, he said.

"From our view, this is just another step in what has been a very dangerous trend over the last couple of years," said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association in Washington. Governments increasingly have been trying to use their power to reach out into the Internet space to try to control it, he said.

Each time that happens, it ends up "wounding the concept of a free and open Internet," he said, adding that the blockade in Egypt not only interferes with free speech, but with commerce and trade. For companies that do business in Egypt, such disruptions can be a huge deal.

"It arguably violates agreements that Egypt has internationally, including trade agreements," Black said.

"Weirdly enough, [Egypt's Internet blockage] is such a blunt instrument it has exposed what they are doing," he said. "In a way, I'm almost glad, because it points how dangerous and unwise it is," he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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