In an attempt to impose sanctions on its own ISPs over their failure to follow its pricing guidelines, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications last week resorted to an unorthodox regulatory tactic: shutting down the Internet at the GBI cable landing in Al Faw (Basra), and across the border with Jordan.
Media reports suggest that the MOC pulled the plug after operators refused orders on Tuesday to cut their pricing by two-thirds. The impacts were visible in the global routing table starting at 9am UTC Friday 11 October (noon Baghdad time), with nearly half of Iraq’s 575 networks becoming unreachable at the peak of the outage.
In an ironic twist, providers such as Earthlink were able to access backup international transit through Iraqi Kurdistan (an autonomous federal entity), enabling them to effectively defy the Ministry’s shutdown order.
In this plot of inbound traces through each of Earthlink’s providers, you can see transit through all providers fall almost to zero as the Ministry pulls the plug on the connection to Jordanian NSP Damamax (purple), which provides nearly all of Earthlink’s connectivity. That left only satellite connectivity (blue) and Kurdish routes through Newroz (red). Newroz routes carry nearly all traffic for 4 hours, ignoring the government disconnection. Over the next 24 hours, the shutdown is rolled back, with Damamax’s cheaper paths gradually replacing Newroz, until the previous transit balance is restored on Sunday.
From the Kurdistan Region, the event looked similar. Here’s the transit support for Sulaymaniya-based IQ Networks, with a much richer and more diverse set of providers. Two events are evident instead of one: the Friday event (October 11th) and what appears to be a second event Saturday afternoon. International provider Level3 (purple) becomes unavailable at the cable landing station in Basra, but Turkish (blue), Kurdish (red), Bulgarian (yellow), and Azeri (green, via Iranian fiber) transit continues, unaffected by the shutdown.
Similarly, Kurdistan’s al-Sard company (Sanatel Mobile) barely sees any effects from Baghdad’s actions. Transit from Azeri Delta Telecom (purple, via Iranian fiber) and Kurdish Newroz (red) persist, with only a few routes through Basra (KPN, in blue) feeling the pinch.
Despite threats that the government action would be repeated with the start of the workweek Sunday morning, no further cuts appear to have been implemented, and the Iraqi Internet is now operating normally.
Government Weakness Exposed
How did it come to this? In most tightly regulated telecoms markets, the mere threat of losing your license to operate would be sufficient to keep ISPs in line. Operators share their cost information with the regulator, and national authority sets tariffs (and approves international interconnections, and often manages the physical infrastructure) in accordance with national policy. As long as the operators believe that the government has the credibility and the longevity to enforce its licensing rules in future years, they typically give in to its demands after negotiation. In other words, when government authority suffices to keep ISPs in line, the killswitch can be kept in reserve for a day when political unrest requires a quick nation-scale disconnect.
In the Iraqi situation, one can sense a great deal of frustration beneath the surface. When I met with the Director General for the government’s Internet services a couple years ago in Istanbul, he laid out a compelling vision for Iraq’s future role in the region. Like Iran to the east, Iraq has the potential to provide north-south terrestrial connectivity between the Gulf and Europe, cutting tens of milliseconds from the path and avoiding the increasingly fragile Sinai crossing for submarine cables. The missing piece of the puzzle has always been the provision of stable power and security for equipment and cable routes in the postwar environment.
As a result, a chicken-and-egg situation has developed: the central government would like to drive down prices to stimulate economic growth, so it has wisely removed high taxes on international interconnection, but it lacks the authority to close the loop by enforcing its own pricing directives across the industry. Faced with operator pushback, the government plays the killswitch card. When the Internet fails to go down, it undermines the government’s authority further, while frightening off direct foreign investment: certainly not the intended outcome.
Antifragility: What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger
The Iraqi situation actually demonstrates the Internet’s essential antifragility: the characteristic of complex self-organizing systems to get stronger and more resilient when they come under attack. At this point, one can argue that the Iraqi Internet is demonstrating more resilience than the Iraqi government, because it has managed to harness the common interests of Iraq’s fragile federal partners.
Last week, the day before the attempted Internet shutdown, there were rumbles in the press of the Iraqi MOC’s unhappiness with the Kurdistan department of posts and communications. Baghdad ordered Kurdistan to fall in line with national communications regulation, and stop creating unlicensed interconnections with international Internet providers (read: Turkey’s Superonline and Azerbaijan’s Delta Telecom). The response from Erbil was swift and unambiguous: “Kurdistan’s own ministry of communication is responsible for dealing with foreign companies and we have nothing to do with Baghdad.”
The evolution of the Kurdistan Region as an autonomous federal entity within postwar Iraq has been full of these kind of moments: disputes over oilfield rights, power, telecommunications, security, taxation. In this case, Kurdish Internet saved the day in Iraq, preserving independent international connectivity options that made it impossible for the central government to execute a nationwide shutdown order.
Government shutdowns expose essential weakness, no matter who executes them. On the Internet, where influence is more important than authority, life goes on.