Egypt Goes Offline

For the first time in history, a government disconnects its people from the global network

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology."

As the protests continue in Egypt, it's impossible not to hope the people there can peaceably re-form their government. And it's impossible not to fear a new order there that brings about less, instead of more, freedom. In one key respect, Egypt is much less free than a week ago, because, in what my guest today calls an unprecedented development, the Egyptian government has shut down cellular and Internet traffic.

My guest is James Cowie. He's the chief technology officer and cofounder of Renesys, a network management company headquartered in Manchester, N.H. The Renesys blog is consistently used as the go-to site for journalists around the world when it comes to analyzing Internet traffic, and Egyptian Internet traffic has been no exception. Jim, you were a guest on this show last year when the news was about a massive, albeit accidental, diversion of Internet routes to China. Welcome back to the podcast.

James Cowie: Oh it's my very great pleasure. Thanks very much.

Steven Cherry: Jim, last week the Egyptian government took the four biggest Egyptian Internet providers off the global network. Maybe you can just take us through what they did and how they did it, and where things stand today?

James Cowie: Sure. I can describe the most likely scenario, which is simply that the four biggest providers in Egypt probably received a phone call from somebody at the government asking them politely to shut it down in compliance with the telecommunications law. Probably a phone call then went to the engineering staff of each of those operators, and the engineers logged into the equipment that connects their organization to their international carriers like Telecom Italia. And they changed a few lines of the configuration and hit Return and in about 30 seconds all over the world all the routers in the world forgot how to reach Egypt, almost like a case of Internet amnesia. So what happened was that if anyone wanted to talk to a person in Egypt or visit an Egyptian Web site, their traffic would have nowhere to go. Their computer essentially can't remember how to reach these network prefixes, these networks that belong to customers in Egypt, because there are no routes. In many ways it's a more fundamental disruption than almost any other strategy that's been used in the past by regimes because it doesn't really provide you with any alternatives in terms of circumvention technology. You can't use mirror sites. You can't use Tor servers. You can't use proxies, because you can't find them. Effectively you can't reach them.

Steven Cherry: Jim, on Friday your blog was the first, I think, to reveal that one Egyptian provider, the Noor Group, was still connected to the outside world. You speculated that that might be because the Egyptian stock market uses the Noor Group for transit. Then on Sunday, a colleague of yours did an even more detailed analysis of the Noor Group's traffic. Can you tell us about it?

James Cowie: Sure. Basically what we found then and what we have continued to find is that Noor managed to stay on the Internet in ways that the other providers did not, and they had about 83 of these Egyptian target networks, customer networks that they were responsible for, that they announced into the global Internet routing tables. And unlike all of their compatriots at the other providers, these 83 Internet routes stayed alive somewhat mysteriously all through the weekend. We find that if you look at who Noor's customer list includes, it includes some very valuable properties such as the Egyptian stock exchange, the Egyptian credit bureau, and indeed one of the clearing houses that enables trades to be settled at the Egyptian stock exchanges in Alexandria and Cairo. It was perhaps anomalous that it was left up. That was our speculation, that just the nature of the customer list made it prudent for the government to leave these routes intact. Or possibly Noor themselves felt that it was better if they stay online regardless of what the government was telling them. We really don't know which scenario is the more plausible.

Steven Cherry: Now, what about inside the country? Is Internet traffic within Egypt shut down as well?

James Cowie: It's hard for us to know. We have a very much outside-in posture as we examine the global routing tables for evidence of what might be going on inside Egypt. It's hard to say what domestic provider relations look like. We know that the internationally connected providers, the largest ones, went down in quick succession shortly after midnight on Friday. We don't really know the story then of how the phone calls may have continued in an effort to take down domestic providers. What would have happened if they had left the domestic providers up would be that people would be able to talk to each other, to connect to Egyptian Web sites from inside even though they wouldn't have been to get to the outside world. From what little information has emerged from Egypt on Twitter and through phone calls, whatever voice connectivity has remained available, we really haven't heard a lot of stories like that, so my assumption would be that just as it was at the international border, so it was domestically. Most likely it was a broader takedown.

Steven Cherry: I guess the absence of those routes between the world and Egypt would mean that traffic from inside Egypt can't get out. But what about just, like, old-fashioned dial-up or satellite Internet?

James Cowie: Yes, this is the point at which we all get to dust off our memories of the 1980s and '90s and remember how we had to connect to the Internet ourselves instead of having it always available. A lot of people, I think, in Egypt went into their basements or dusty closets and pulled out old modems, which they were able to use to dial international numbers and literally create dial-up connections to the Internet, and in most cases they would have had Internet service that worked. And it would have worked about as well as you remembered Internet service working in the early 1990s. It would have been quite slow—and expensive.

Steven Cherry: Now, it sounds to me from your description that the government in effect had each of the individual Internet providers in Egypt, the major ones, basically turn off their own portion of the Internet. That's a little different from how things work in China, right? Things are even more centralized there.

James Cowie: Exactly right. The sort of information control you see in China and in other regimes like Tunisia before they had their government change, or like Iran after they had their elections. It's very different. It's almost surgical in its precision in that the regime makes lists of domains or Web sites or network blocks belonging to content providers that they don't like. In this case, of course, the fact that they took out the bluntest instrument in the censorship tool kit and shut down the Internet, seems to be fairly good evidence that they were beyond such games.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I mean you called it unprecedented and I guess it is. But, you know, I noticed that here in the United States there's been a lot of talk about some legislation that was proposed last year in Congress that would, I guess, in effect create a single point that would let the government shut down the entire U.S. Internet. People have called this an Internet kill switch. Am I describing that right? And, like, how technically feasible is that?

James Cowie: You are describing it correctly. The kill switch has been an idea that has, sort of, captivated the political imagination for some time, probably ever since the Internet was created. Technically it's hard to imagine how it could work. The reason that a kill switch is effectively what they had in Egypt, is because the diversity of Egypt's Internet is not high enough to prevent it from happening. Egypt is a very different place in a regulatory sense than the United States. There are only a few companies that have Internet connections to foreign carriers, and they are very tightly regulated, so in Egypt when the phone call arrives, you do what they say in order to preserve your business and preserve your license and also, frankly, to obey the law. In the United States or in Canada or in Germany, these are all countries that have a much larger Internet industry with hundreds, thousands of providers, all of whom are extremely independent. And in such a scenario, you have to ask yourself how many phone calls they would have to make in order to implement such a kill switch, and even if the kill switch were pressed how many people would simply obey it. In the United States I think people would be more likely to lawyer up, kick it upstairs, and not go meekly into the darkness.

Steven Cherry: Jim, you're talking to us from Miami, Fla., where you're attending a meeting of the North American Network Operators group. I imagine the Egyptian Internet is a pretty big topic of conversation there. What are people saying?

James Cowie: It is the subject of quite a bit of hallway conversation, sort of nervous excitement I suppose. These are North American network operators, and so they live in an environment that is a little less, I guess, chaotic and challenging than the network operators in a lot of the emerging world. So I think for these guys it's technical interest. They're very curious to find out what mechanisms were used, very curious to find out more about the details of the BGP routing that was used to implement the takedown and what traffic flows looked like. But overall I think there are not a lot of people here that take the threat of a U.S. Internet kill switch very seriously.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I was going to ask you that too. I guess these are the people who would lawyer up and kick it upstairs I guess.

James Cowie: Yeah, the North American network operator culture is very independent. They're very concerned with ethics. They're very thoughtful of the fact that basically the people who attend a conference like NANOG are in a real sense the human backbone of North American Internet operations. I get the sense that people feel a little funny. They put themselves in the shoes of the Internet engineers in Egypt, the guys who got the phone call, who would be asked to log into their own equipment and do the thing that they had spent their entire career trying not to do, which was take down the Internet. It had to have been a very strange moment for them. The people at NANOG, at this conference, certainly can put themselves in their shoes and imagine what that moment must feel like.

Steven Cherry: So, I guess, we don't mean to suggest that the Egyptian operators are any less ethical. I guess the lesson here is that the freedom of the Internet really can only go so far beyond the freedom that underlies the country as a whole.

James Cowie: That's exactly right. I didn't mean to imply anything about— I think that network operators the world over as I've met them and I've traveled have been all cut from the same mold. On the one hand, they want to keep the Internet up: It's what they do. On the other, they have to be citizens of their country and obey the local regulations. It really does come down to the, How free is the regulatory environment in which you're operating? I think that there's some hope for the future, that people have told me: We hope that the Internet will be beyond politics, in the sense that it is just a communications medium. It's really almost like keeping electricity on or keeping clean water flowing to people. It's an infrastructure component that everybody should have, almost as basic access for living.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, Jim, on behalf of everyone I want to thank you for your continued detailed analyses of Internet traffic and thank you for coming back on the show.

James Cowie: Sure thing. Talk to you another time.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with James Cowie, chief technology officer of the network management firm, Renesys, about the Egyptian government's extraordinary efforts to cut its 80 million citizens off from the rest of the world. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry

NOTE: A few hours after this interview was recorded (Monday night EST), the last Egyptian provider still connected to the Internet, The Noor Group, went offline. On Wednesday, at about 9:30 UTC (11:30 Cairo time), Egyptian servers began to advertise routes again, and as of Wednesday evening, Internet traffic has apparently returned to normal service.

Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.