Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Egypt's Internet Blockage - Tweets

The news that Egypt has gone of the internet last Thursday night, stunned the internet community. The news swooshed around quickly and questions were asked. How is this possible, is there a switch?

Over the past years we have learned to appreciate the net as a distributed network of hubs and servers with its own rules. Those being that the internet is not centrally managed and therefore very difficult to govern, even navigate. However, the net of nets is still connected via physical routers, as Andrew Blum in post over at the Atlantic points out.

The move by the Egyptian government was intended to help regain controle over the masses of people who protested for change on the streets of the major cities. The government seemed to believe that the internet and especially social media platforms such as Facebook a and Twitter are increasingly playing a role in the organisation of protests. Cutting Egypt off the web would leave the protesters unable to organise themselves.

Shortly after midnight, about 22h00 UTS, the Egyptian internet providers were asked to take down their routers. One after the other, over a timespan of about 20 minutes, went offline. As a result international IP addresses were unavailable from Egypt.

Image taken from / The following plot shows the number of available networks for each of the significant providers, between 22:00 and 23:00 UTC last night (midnight to 1am Cairo time). Our new observation is that this was not an instantaneous event on the front end; each service provider approached the task of shutting down its part of the Egyptian Internet separately.
Telecom Egypt (AS8452), the national incumbent, starts the process at 22:12:43. Raya joins in a minute later, at 22:13:26. Link Egypt (AS24863) begins taking themselves down 4 minutes later, at 22:17:10.
Etisalat Misr (AS32992) goes two minutes later, at 22:19:02. Internet Egypt (AS5536) goes six minutes later, at 22:25:10.

The New York Times called it "Egypt, to an unprecedented extent, pulled itself off the grid." and Jim Cowie, chief technology officer of Renesys said “In a fundamental sense, it’s as if you rewrote the map and they are no longer a country.”

The controle of internet content as well as accessibility is not new. Countries around the globe have developed different methods to do this. The most prominent examples are China or Iran, where twitter in 2009 played an important role in organising the political protests as well as distributing information after a disputed election. Earlier urbanTick coverage on mashups HERE.

As part of the New City Landscape (NCL) project we are collecting location based tweets in urban areas. For the last week we also recorded twitter activity in Cairo. And surprisingly twitter activity does not reflect the sudden drop off of international internet connection from Egypt. There is no dramatic reduction of tweets, however there is a continuous reduction of tweets reflected in the data. Over the past five days the location based twitter activity in Cairo has gone from about 250 to 300 messages per hour on Tuesday 27th and Friday 28th down to spikes of 50 on Monday the first of February.

Graph by urbanTick / Tweets collected using the TOM tool written by Steven Gray. The tool collects geolocated tweets originating within a 30km radius around the centre of Cairo. The graph shows number of tweets sent per hour.

This is not exactly as expected. There are different possible explanations for this. One of them could be that the internet is a difficult beast to tame and a few routers down don't mean the end of this versatile construct. Via very slow channels it must in this case still be possible to send mainly mobile tweets, even though mobile networks were also reported partially down.

Then on the first of February new information circulated the news channels. Google has put live a new service to allow people in Egypt to tweets via a phone call. After calling a speciall number, +16504194196 , +390662207294, +97316199855, a message can be left that will be posted as a tweet including the hashtag #egypt. The tweet will contain a link to the recorded message. Messages are pushed through this speakToTweet account. Somehow a very political move "We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there."

Regarding out NCL collection this would not change anything since we are only looking at actual geolocated tweets send with Lat/Lon information included.

According to Renesys, Egypt has just this morning around 09h32 UTS returned to the internet after an absence of almost a week. How this will affect the tweeting activity we will see by tomorrow. It will be interesting to see weather this brings back up the numbers to a level of around 100 tweets per hour, we will see. New data and NCL maps are under way.

Image taken from / All major Egyptian ISPs appear to have readvertised routes to their domestic customer networks in the global routing table, with the exception of Noor Group (AS20928). Recall that Noor was the exception (until Monday) to the Internet blackout, so they are as much an anomaly in restoration as they were in outage. (Update: Noor group back online with a full complement of prefixes as of 12:52pm Cairo time. Better late than never.)

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