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Talking About Internet Disruptions at RightsCon 2018

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend RightsCon 2018, held this year in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Described as “the world’s leading conference on human rights in the digital age”, RightsCon featured a massive amount of content, packed into over 450 sessions over just three days. These sessions covered a broad range of topics, including (but not limited to) AI, Accountability, Governance, Advocacy, Digital Security, Censorship, Hacking, Network/Internet Disruptions, Privacy & Data Protection, and Media. Panels were diverse, featuring subject matter experts from organizations all over the world.

In line with one of my key areas of interest as part of Oracle’s Internet Intelligence team, many of the sessions I attended were focused on Internet shutdowns and disruptions. I also attended other sessions that looked at various aspects of cybersecurity, data ownership in smart cities, and issues around intermediate liability for content platforms.

A major topic of discussion around Internet shutdowns was the challenges faced in measuring them, especially as they have evolved from intentional nationwide outages to more ‘surgical’ disruptions of local cellular connectivity, or blocking of a specific protocol or application, and to that end, understanding whether an observed connectivity issue was caused by a technical problem (such as a power outage, router failure, or cable cut) or whether it was government ordered.  Three avenues of analysis were highlighted:

  • Analyzing statistics from existing data sets, using them as a signal for anomalies. Such data sets include traffic & disruption data from Google’s Transparency Report, Internet disruptions data from Facebook, and Oracle’s forthcoming Internet Intelligence Map. However, these statistics are mainly aggregated at a national level, and are harder to apply to more localized issues.
  • Active probing from outside, conducting reachability experiments towards IP addresses in a geography of interest. Unfortunately, an IP address (or block of addresses) isn’t necessarily representative of an entire georegion, and the underlying protocol (ICMP) used by diagnostic tools such as ping and traceroute may be blocked at intermediary routers, unrelated to specific Internet disruptions.
  • Active probing from inside a geography of interest, using apps on end-user devices to detect connectivity problems and do follow-up measurements to gather additional information on what is occurring at a technical level. The OONI Explorer and RIPE Atlas reachability pages aggregate measurements performed by their respective tools.

The importance of highlighting the impact of Internet shutdowns was also reinforced. While it is comparatively easy to illustrate the impact from a measurement perspective, producing charts, graphs, and maps, the impact to users in the affected geography is often overlooked, especially when the issues are intentional – that is, government-directed. AccessNow has collected a few “shutdown stories” that provide on-the-ground insights from users impacted by Internet shutdowns, and NetBlocks, in conjunction with the Internet Society, unveiled their Cost Of Shutdown Tool (COST) at RightsCon, which aims to better measure the cost of Internet shutdowns, mobile data blackouts and social media restrictions. However, there is little broader coverage of how the shutdowns impact the right that citizens have to healthcare, education, and freedom of expression, especially as the Internet becomes more integral in these areas around the world.

In 2019, RightsCon will be taking place in Tunisia, which saw targeted Web site blocking during the Arab Spring, but not outright shutdowns, as occurred in Egypt. Internet disruptions will presumably be covered within a number of event sessions, and hopefully participants will demonstrate progress that has been made in measuring outages and shutdowns, as well as highlighting and quantifying the human and financial impacts of these disruptions.

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David Belson
Whois: David Belson

David Belson is a Senior Director of Internet Research & Analysis at Oracle Dyn Global Business Unit, a pioneer in managed DNS and a leader in cloud-based infrastructure that connects users with digital content and experiences across a global internet.