After a week of widespread protests against corruption and poor government services, the Iraqi government declared a state of emergency last week. And as part of that measure, the government ordered the disconnection of the fiber backbone of Iraq that carries traffic for most of the country.
On Monday, Internet services in Iraq were coming back online (however, social media site are still blocked according to independent measurement outfit NetBlocks). The blackout, which lasted almost 48hrs, was clearly visible in our Internet Intelligence Map (screenshot below):
A history of government-directed outages
Government-directed Internet outages have become a part of regular life in Iraq. Just yesterday, the government ordered its latest national outage to coincide this year’s last 6th grade placement exam.
The first government-directed outage in Iraq that we documented occurred in the fall of 2013 and revolved around a pricing dispute between the Iraqi Ministry of Communications (MoC) and various telecommunications companies operating there. While the intention of this outage was to enforce the MoC’s authority, it served mainly to reveal the extent to which Iraqi providers were now relying on Kurdish transit providers operating outside the control of the central government – a topic we covered here.
In June 2014, the terrorist organization ISIS stormed out of the deserts of western Iraq and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. As we covered at the time, the government’s reaction then was to block social media and disconnect Internet service.
In the summer of 2015, we began to observe periodic early-morning outages that turned out to be the beginning of the practice of taking the national Internet down to combat cheating in Iraq, a practice that has sadly continued to this month.
Since then, Iraq has used Internet outages as a way to combat anti-government protests. For example, the incident covered in the tweet below:
Exceptions to the shutdown
As depicted in the above Internet Intelligence Map screenshot, not all of Iraq was taken offline during this past weekend’s blackout. For example, about 400 BGP routes stayed online through the weekend out of a total 1300 routes for Iraq. Some telecoms with independent Internet connections through the north of Iraq stayed online, as did those with independent satellite links.
For example, the graphic below depicts the shift to satellite service for a route used by the Russian oil company Lukoil for its operations in Iraq (AS200939).
Using the Traffic Shifts section of the Internet Intelligence Map, we can observe a range of impacts by each individual Iraqi provider. ITC operates the Iraqi fiber backbone, so it is not surprising to see it go completely offline during the weekends communications blackout, as well as for two exam-related outages on July 11th and 17th.
Iraqi provider Earthlink is based in Baghdad and is one of Iraq’s largest ISPs. And, as is usually the case with Earthlink, it was down during the government-directed outages in the past week.
Newroz is an Iraqi telecom based in northern Iraq in what is commonly referred to as the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government). For much of its existence, it has operated largely outside of the control of the central government of Iraq. However, last year’s failed Kurdish independence vote energized the central government to bring the KRG into the fold. Earlier this year, the central government accused Kurdish providers of “smuggling” Internet service – selling international bandwidth without paying taxes to the Ministry of Communications – and arrested some telecom executives.
In the screenshot below, we can see minor dips in the volume of traceroutes completing into Newroz’s network that coincide with the outages in the previous two networks. These dips represent Newroz’s service area dependent on the national fiber backbone that can be disabled by technical means from Baghdad. In addition, we see a 12-hour complete blackout that does not correspond to outages seen in other Iraqi providers.
Yesterday, at the request of one of his Twitter followers, the Deputy Prime Minister of Kurdistan asked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to lift the country’s block on social media: