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Off The Air In Egypt: Could it Happen in the United States?

By

CEO

We’ve all heard about what’s going on in Egypt, (if not, this is a great article by Renesys) including a five-day outage of the Internet. Now that it’s over, people have been asking questions about what it all means. Segmentation on the Internet is something to think about, whether it’s caused by geological or political events. We are always weighing different factors when deciding on server placement — political stability being one of them.

Given that the United States has the most nodes of any country, we asked the question — could this happen to us?

During the Egypt Internet outage, all of Dyn’s services were unavailable within Egypt. A node in country would have not helped too much since the four major ISPs had no interconnectivity during the blackout period. What it meant for customers who use Dyn to map domain.eg to their underlying content or email was that they were unable to make the connection and it appeared as if the content was unavailable. For end users of our customers in country, it also meant that sites they visit were unavailable regardless of whether the content was in country and on the same network. Not a great place to be.

Here are some graphs of what was going on in Egypt. It’s striking to see how Ecommerce transactions disappeared overnight and how traffic to our site from Egypt also went away.

So, exactly what would happen here in the event that the US government was facing some “cyber threat” or there was a revolutionary attempt? What could the government do and how would the Internet be affected? While we don’t know for sure, the reality is we could look no different than Egypt.

Motives and Tools

The Egyptian government was motivated to reduce communications and to increase the friction of protesters and demonstrators who were coordinating their activities, but their  style of censorship was a communication take down that we’ve never seen before. Here are some example of what we have seen in the United States:

  • ISP ordered BGP hijacking – Governments order ISPs to override the addresses of a domain name like Youtube.com in Pakistan
  • Active blocking or throttling – Governments or ISPs insert themselves in the middle of a communication stream and block on a number of characteristics.  Some of these maybe keyword specific or they maybe network performance enhancing in nature like the Big Red Firewall or blocking/throttling protocols like bit torrent.
  • Passive decency requirement – Let’s not forget that US free speech is pretty well regulated.  There are strict decency which critics label as ambiguous and vague.
  • Government ordered BGP prefix widthdrawl – A country orders its networks to disconnect from its international upstream providers and to provide no interconnectivity on its networks.  This is what happened in Egypt.

When we’re looking at what the United States would do, we have to consider the motives. I would like to think that we would only see a similar move under the most extraordinary circumstances. When looking at the history of the United States, I cannot see a single time in which a move would be appropriate or in the best interest of the government. The only exception is in the context of a revolution where the Internet would be seen as a greater asset to the people than to the government in power.

In Egypt, the scenario is an adversarial nature between the government in power and a block of the population. In this scenario, we’ll assume that a unpopular president has a state of emergency and martial law and the US population is calling for a structural change of the federal government. Channeling Clausewitz, it’s important to recognize that the outage of the Internet is not the goal but instead the political aim of reducing the ability to assemble.

US Background

In the United States, we have a variety of end-user, last-mile networks like Comcast, Cablevision and SBC. We also have telcos who are more wholesales providers but do provide local interconnect like ATT, Verizon and NTT. It’s more complicated as many of these networks have large numbers of subscribers and provide transit service for downstream networks.

Another major difference is that the US has many more content producers that would be “of interest” to disrupt. We also have content delivery networks which are well connected and help get assets distributed to ISPs all over. Therefore, clawing these service providers away from eyeballs would be harder.

ISPs and content providers are also highly interconnected in many different exchange points throughout the United States where in Egypt, there are not as many candidate locations for those interconnects to occur. So, our US-based networks have more interconnects and I would suspect that the ownership of the underlying fiber is more privately owned and would be a higher bar to order a disconnect.

The other communications methods would also have to be considered such as broadcast TV/radio, copper-based PSTN networks, cell/mobile phones and RF communications. The PSTN/dialtone and cell phone networks are heavily regulated and there are only a few operators, so it may not be difficult to stop them. Broadcast equipment would be more difficult to stop or jam but the number of people who have the necessarily equipment is pretty limited. Compared to Egypt, amateur radio and CB radios would make wireless communication more possible.

States would play an interesting role. Given the federal state nature, some states may be supportive of change while others may not. States have National Guard members and can assert judicial jurisdiction. Their local municipalities have local law enforcement. You’ll notice the domain deletion/seizures were lead by the federal government and backed some state’s executive branch of government.

How It Runs

To start, it’s messy. What would be the first step? Federal government passes a law or executive order to take down. It has the weight of Congress and the Supreme Court, both of which execute checks of power against a single power. A big decision is whether they order the block for certain sites (probably most sites) or the entire Internet.  Given that certain sites are routinely blocked or taken down in any jurisdiction in the world (the United States included), it wouldn’t be interesting to explore this unless it was the Internet at-large.

There are many more providers who would receive the order than in Egypt. It would lead to a staggered effect where there is some interconnectivity as enforcing the order would be more difficult.  Depending on the disposition of the US military, our dual-use network may still have some availability which is not completely disconnected.

Preventing communication outside of the Unites States may be relatively effective with several exceptions. People on the border would be able to use other wireless communication methods. The PSTN network may also be useful to get content in and out of the United States (those are considered life-line services). Satellite TV and radio would continue to work fine, to the extent that those providers had no or little presence in the United States. Satellite Internet would work if you were using satellite-only communication, not terrestrial transmit.

Egypt was careful to continue to transit traffic through Egypt from outside the country to the next. I do not think the United States would share this concern for its Asian and European neighbors and simply tell ISPs to shut down. This obviously opens up the range of tools that a government could use to enforce a disruption like ordering or forcing utilities to disconnect electrical power from key peering locations.

Going after content providers and getting them to shut down may be easy but generally ineffective. As providers like Facebook or Twitter are shutdown, clones would pop up due to the larger population of technically oriented people in the United States.

Then there is lots of collateral damage which would just infuriate people. Financial transactions by credit card online don’t work and many credit card transactions or ATMs in general may not work. Information in general would be harder to get and many systems would just not work as well.

My thinking is that Dyn’s services would only be available to small subsets of the population. Internationally, we would continue to service DNS for customers, just like the .eg TLD was able to. Domestically, only the users who were directly connected to the networks we are connected to would be able to access our services to resolve names.  Websites would only come up if the content provider, end-user and Dyn were on the same network. An even smaller number of users would be able to access our site to make changes.  It would be ugly.

Conclusion

While there are more steps along the way for a large scale outage to be stopped, it’s not impossible but highly unlikely. We’re more protected than Egypt thanks to multiple branches of government, stronger private interests, and more providers.  Bills like the Internet kill switch which was recently introduced would help consolidate power and are not in the interest of a robust Internet.  In a strong attempt by the government, Dyn, and a lot of other people’s services would have negative impacts. Either way, it’s a frightening question and one we all hope never to see in the United States.

Jeremy Hitchcock is CEO of Dyn, the world leader in Internet Performance Solutions that delivers traffic management, message management, and performance assurance. Follow him on Twitter: @jhitchco and @Dyn.