The Migration of Political Internet Shutdowns

David Belson
Sr. Director, Internet Research & Analysis

In January 2011, what was arguably the first significant disconnection of an entire country from the Internet took place when routes to Egyptian networks disappeared from the Internet’s global routing table, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could exchange Internet traffic with Egypt’s service providers. It was followed in short order by nationwide disruptions in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. These outages took place during what became known as the Arab Spring, highlighting the role that the Internet had come to play in political protest, and heralding the wider use of national Internet shutdowns as a means of control.

“How hard is it to disconnect a country from the Internet, really?”

After these events, and another significant Internet outage in Syria, this question led a blog post published in November 2012 by former Dyn Chief Scientist Jim Cowie that examined the risk of Internet disconnection for countries around the world, based on the number of Internet connections at their international border. “You can think of this, to [a] first approximation,” Cowie wrote, “as the number of phone calls (or legal writs, or infrastructure attacks) that would have to be performed in order to decouple the domestic Internet from the global Internet.”

Defining Internet Disconnection Risk

Based on our aggregated view of the global Internet routing table at the time, we identified the set of border providers in each country: domestic network providers (autonomous systems, in BGP parlance) who have direct connections, visible in routing, to international (foreign) providers. From that data set, four tiers were defined to classify a country’s risk of Internet disconnection. A summary of these classifications is below - additional context can be found in the original blog post:

  • If a country has only 1 or 2 service providers at its international frontier, it is classified as being at severe risk of Internet disconnection.
  • With fewer than 10 service providers at its international frontier, a country is classified as being at significant risk of Internet disconnection.
  • A country’s risk of Internet disconnection is classified as low risk with between 10 and 40 internationally-connected service providers.
  • Finally, countries with more than 40 providers at their borders are considered to be resistant to Internet disconnection.

The original blog post classified 223 countries and territories, with the largest number of them classified as being at significant risk of Internet disconnection.

A February 2014 update to the original post, entitled “Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine: Internet Under Fire” examined changes observed in the 16 months since the original post, highlighting both increases and decreases in Internet disconnection risk level across a number of countries. The post noted the continued fragility of Internet connectivity in Syria, owing in part to its classification of being at severe risk of Internet disconnection, as well as mentioning the lack of nationwide Internet disruptions in Venezuela despite periodic slowdowns and regional access disruptions.

It has been five years since the original blog post, and over three and a half years since the follow-up post, so we thought that it would be interesting to take a new look at Internet resiliency around the world. Has connection diversity increased, and does that lead to a potential decrease in vulnerability to Internet shutdown?

However, as the 2014 blog post notes, “We acknowledge the limitations of such a simple model in predicting complex events such as Internet shutdowns. Many factors can contribute to making countries more fragile than they appear at the surface (for example, shared physical infrastructure under the control of a central authority, or the physical limitations of a few shared fiber optic connections to distant countries).” For instance, at the time of the original (2012) post, New Zealand relied primarily on the Southern Cross submarine cable connection to Australia for international Internet connectivity, despite our data showing dozens of border network providers. And while Iraq has gained numerous border relationships since 2012, most of the country (except for Kurdistan in the north) relies on a national fiber backbone which the Iraqi government has shut down dozens of times since 2014 to combat cheating on student exams, stifle protests, and disrupt ISIS communication.

In addition, it’s worth recognizing that there likely isn’t a meaningful difference in resilience in a country with 39 border providers (which would classify it as “low risk”) and 41 border providers (which would classify it as “resistant”). With these caveats in mind, an updated world map reflecting the risk of Internet disconnection as classified in our 2017 data set is presented below.

[Map] Risk of Internet Disconnection - November 2017


What’s Happened Since Then?

In reviewing other notable Internet shutdowns that have occurred since the 2014 post was published, a few things stood out:

However, the most interesting observation was the ‘migration’ of politically-motivated nationwide Internet disruptions. The outages that occurred during the Arab Spring time frame were largely concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East, shifting over the last several years into sub-Saharan Africa. This shift has not gone unnoticed, with online publication Quartz also highlighting the growing trend of African governments blocking the Internet to silence dissent, and the United Nations taking note as well. In addition, as these shutdowns are now a more regular occurrence, both in Africa and in other areas around the world, it is also worth looking at the financial impact that they have on affected countries.

Nearly three years ago, in January 2015, an Internet shutdown was put into place in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after bloody clashes took place between opponents of President Joseph Kabila and police.  Banks and government agencies reportedly regained access after four days, while subscribers remained offline for three weeks. Almost two years later, in December 2016, an Internet shutdown was ordered as a means of blocking access to social media sites to prevent mobilization of those protesting against the president’s stay in office beyond the two-term limit.

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