Libya: Censorship in the Internet Age

The Internet routes around censorship--except when it can't

Loading the podcast player...

Steven Cherry:

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

As waves of protests continue to sweep through the Middle East, governments have attacked their own communications networks with a vengeance. In January, as protests in Egypt rose to a crescendo, the country's Internet was shut off for about five days. And now, network engineers are seeing firewalls thrown up in Libya. But Libya is different. On the streets, the situation there has turned violent. And online, though traffic is at times brought to a crawl, Internet routes are still operating.

The premise of the Internet was a distributed network that would find new ways to route around damage, and in the famous words, now nearly 20 years old, of Internet pioneer John Gilmore, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." That was easy to say back in 1994; could it still be true in the era of Google and Facebook and Twitter?

My guest today by phone is Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks in Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to his Web site, his security technology is deployed in over 400 Internet service carriers and data centers and protects more than 70 percent of all Internet backbone traffic. Craig, welcome to the podcast.

Craig Labovitz: Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: So let's start with, um—just what is the Internet situation right now in Libya? And maybe you could then tell us how it differs from what happened in Egypt.

Craig Labovitz: Certainly. As of this recording, Libya traffic is gone—there is no traffic as far as we can tell going in or out of the country, starting really since last week last Thursday.

Steven Cherry: You know, that seems reminiscent of what happened in Egypt, but I guess the way that they have cut off traffic is different.

Craig Labovitz: Yeah, I think at a technical level what we saw with Egypt is that the routes were withdrawn. What that really means is that the advertisements, the telephone book entries to reach Egypt were withdrawn, and if those don't exist, all traffic ceases. With Libya, there are still entries and routers around the Internet for how to reach Libya, but all traffic going in or out is being blocked, typically what you'd see with a firewall or other network devices.

Steven Cherry: I guess it's easier to block the Internet in Libya—there's really in effect one big pipeline going into the country and out of it, right?

Craig Labovitz: Yeah, I think that in a country like Libya there's still multiple circuits, literally multiple links, but generally it's all going through just a single provider or a single company that has administrative control or the network. So a fairly small infrastructure and even smaller than a country as we've discussed like Egypt.

Steven Cherry: Egypt had a number of different Internet service providers, and they all had to, in effect, shut down or lose their routes. Is that right?

Craig Labovitz: That's correct. There are at least four major providers that maintained international links in Egypt. With Libya there's one.

Steven Cherry: So is there traffic within Libya, or is that a question we have trouble answering?

Craig Labovitz: Yeah, uh, we don't have, I think, visibility into traffic within Libya. I think that for the most part, though, most of the Internet, whether it be social media, Facebook, Twitter, and so on all relies on servers outside of the country. So typically for a country like Libya, 99 percent of the traffic is going to be coming from places outside of Libya. So for all intents and purposes, if you disconnect from the larger Internet, you don't have online services within the country.

Steven Cherry: Now what we're seeing on the streets or in the outside world in Libya is that there's this fracture between the east and the west of the country, but there's no such fracture online. Is that right?

Craig Labovitz: Well, at least initially we saw some interesting indications through the beginning of last week, where in fact there continued to be connectivity in and out of the country, though at reduced levels, and we saw some of the eastern cities actually have significant increases in traffic while Tripoli remained basically flatlined at a reduced level. So we did see some differences, which were intriguing late last week, but as of Thursday of last week, all traffic was cut off in and out of the country.

Steven Cherry: Now a couple of weeks ago you put out what you called a "Middle East Internet scorecard." You looked at traffic patterns, not just in Egypt and Libya but Iran, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain. What did you find then?

Craig Labovitz: Well, I think we were interested to see if there was evidence of significant statistical traffic changes in other countries, perhaps suggestive of traffic manipulation. And indeed, we have found some traces of manipulation or traces of at least statistically interesting changes in Bahrain, certainly in Egypt, and a few other places. But countries where you might expect there to have been increased filtering, we didn't see it typical, like Iran and other countries.

Steven Cherry: Which of these countries have a single pipeline like Libya? I guess in the Libya case there's just Libya Telecom and Technology, and that's basically part of the state-owned telecommunications monopoly that's controlled by Qaddafi's son. Do these other countries also have a single overriding pipeline?

Craig Labovitz: Yeah, I think most of the other countries have fairly small infrastructure. For the region, Egypt was fairly developed, fairly open to the market going back several years ago, so a fairly large number of providers within country and several providers maintaining external links. But I think the important thing is regardless of whether there are multiple providers maintaining the links, whether there's one or five, most of the countries all have the Internet providers under fairly strict regulatory control—a state telecom agency. So whether it be indirect or direct control, the state generally has a fair amount of oversight of the telecommunication industry throughout the region.

Steven Cherry: So the Gilmore quote about routing around censorship—that doesn't seem to be true for many of these countries. It would be possible in the Libya case to just shut down the Net.

Craig Labovitz: Yeah, I think for many of us in the industry who deal with failures and have watched tunnel fires take out most of Canada connectivity in the past, we've seen squirrels chew through fiber-optic cables disrupt most of North America in the past, we've seen typos made by network engineers disrupt global traffic to Yahoo or to other providers. So I don't think it's a shock to those of us who work in the industry at these outages. In fact, I think we're mostly surprised that the Internet continues to work and be as reliable as it is, not that a country could disrupt. So I think many of us in the industry have a different view of the technology than the famous quote.

Steven Cherry: So if any of these countries are to stage an uprising, a revolution, any kind of real social change, they're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. Is that right?

Craig Labovitz: You mean instead of relying on the Internet?

Steven Cherry: Yeah.

Craig Labovitz: Well, you know, I think the really interesting thing—and we certainly saw this in Egypt—is that as the technology becomes democratized, as the technology becomes so pervasive, so part of the social fabric, it really becomes harder in an advanced modern technological society to disrupt communication. Certainly, in the case of Egypt the government relies on the Internet in part to govern, the stock market relies on the Internet, the economy relies on the Internet. So any prolonged outage is very difficult to prevent very significant social, political, and economic collateral damage. So I think it really is interesting as we move forward. Twenty years ago it would be blocking the presses, 15 years ago blocking the major radio and TV stations; now, clearly the Internet is viewed as the medium for dissemination of information.

Steven Cherry: So right now Egypt really is anomalous in the Middle East—it's not only got the highest population in the country but by far the most developed telecommunications and in particular Internet infrastructure. I noticed that there's 5 million Facebook users in Egypt. That's pretty remarkable, but I guess your point is that 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, these other countries are going to have just as much of a dependence on the Internet, and they won't be able to shut it down.

Craig Labovitz: I certainly think it becomes more challenging, and again the issue isn't technical. I think just about any country, any government if they're so inclined, would have the ability under both civil and criminal penalties to disrupt communication. The real issue is, can they afford to keep the disconnect?

Steven Cherry: So I guess if a citizenry wanted to ensure uninterruptable communications, they would want to see everything on the one network, they'd want to see, you know, the stock market rely on the Internet, they'd want the electricity system to rely on the Internet one way or another, and then the telecommunications would have to stay on.

Craig Labovitz: Yeah, I think that's true. I think what you'd like to see is the technology be concentrated and have a lot of your economy depend on it. And you'd like to see the continued democratization of the technology. You know the numbers of fixed-line Internet are fairly small, but the numbers are amazing when you look at the number of cellphones—uh, especially in some developing economies where there's not electricity but [laughs] a fair number of the population will have cellphones.

Steven Cherry: And so that's the ultimate force for democratization in the third world. Very good. So…smartphones of the world unite.

Craig Labovitz: [laughs] I guess yes.

Steven Cherry: Well, very good. Thank you so much for your time, Craig.

Craig Labovitz: Okay, good luck. Thank you.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with Craig Labovitz of Arbor Networks about how Libya and other governments in the Middle East are trying to control information coming in and out of their nations. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 7 March 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter @spectrumpodcast

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.