The Fight for the Future: The Internet, Censorship, Surveillance, and You

Here's the keynote talk I did at the Portland Digital eXperience (PDX) event, in which I talk about the North African revolutions, the onslaught of Syria's pro-Assad hacker army, the new dynamics created by China's Weibo platforms, and the success of the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement in the United States, what ties those things together, how they reveal much about the world we are now actively building, and what all that counsels for policymakers and entrepreneurs alike.  Thanks to Mark Zusman and Rick Turoczy for the invite and the warm Portland hospitality, and to the Rich Report for recording & posting the video!

Best fringe benefit of the excursion, besides hanging out with my awesome sister Meg, was seeing Beirut play "Santa Fe" as the sun set over Portland.

Assessing Egypt's Echoes: How to Check for Yourself What's Happening with the Internet in Another Country

As anti-regime demonstrations have been taking place in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, and Algeria, are we seeing a tidal shockwave from Egypt’s people power revolution ripple across the Middle East and North Africa?  And what lessons are the region's besieged regimes drawing from Egypt?

The latest reports from the ground:

  •  Iran:  Massive street protests across Tehran and Isfahan on Monday, met with riot police using tear gas.  At least one killed.  Green Movement leaders, including Moussavi and Karroubi, arrested or detained.
  • Bahrain:  More than 10,000 Bahrainis took part in Monday’s Day of Rage, and at least that number have gathered in the central Pearl Square.  One demonstrator was killed by police on Monday, and another on Tuesday.  King Hamad is promising reforms, including easing censorship of media and the Internet.
  • Yemen:  Six days of continuous protests, with demonstrators now encountering swarms of police batons.  After 32 years in office, President Saleh is making populist-sounding concessions (and budgetary payoffs to the Army) to cling to power.
  • Algeria:  A weekend of demonstrations in Algiers resulted in hundreds of arrests.  The Bouteflika government announced a coming end to the 20-year-old state of emergency.
  • Jordan: Weeks of peaceful protests led King Abdullah to replace his prime minister and cabinet, bring opposition figures into government, and even invite the local Muslim Brotherhood branch to join.  Amid the tumult, Jordanians have started to air previously unthinkable public criticisms of the royal family.

[Sources:  NYTimesWPost. And the Atlantic is putting up occasional posts summarizing what we know about the situation in those counties.]

Amid the stream of conventional news reports, there are many unknowns:  How many people have been pre-emptively arrested?  What is happening outside the capitals?  What is actually happening in the places where communications are being blocked or suppressed?

One thing we do know is that, contrary to a breathless and unsourced (and nutty -- “Facebook accounts deleted”?) story in the UK’s Telegraph (British newspapers will evidently print anything), Algeria has not so far shut down its Internet or mobile connections or imposed new website blocks.  How do we know?  Well, to get a rough snapshot, we can look at real-time Internet traffic and routing data, as well as first-hand reports via Twitter and Facebook.  

Specifically, we can use a set of public, online tools to assess the state of Internet and mobile phone connections in each of those five countries.  

Here are three handy ways you can test reports about the Internet being blocked in X or Y country.

 1.  Google Traffic Data

Google maintains a very useful site that generates graphs of near-real-time, normalized measurements of network traffic to various Google services (search, YouTube, Blogger, etc.) on a country-by-country basis.  This means you can select a country and a Google service and generate a graph that shows relative traffic patterns over time. 

For example, here’s the graph for Google search traffic to Egypt from January 2, 2011 to now: 

The canyon-like flatline reflects the period in which Egypt’s Internet and mobile networks were shut down:  no network means no Google searches.  (Notice, by the way, how each day has two separate peaks -- one in the morning, followed a drop-off around lunch, then the afternoon peak, followed by a steep plunge at night.  Fascinating, huh?)

We can pull up the same charts for Algeria:





and Yemen: 

In none of those countries do we see evidence of a significant disruption or blocking of Google searches.  By itself Google traffic data indicates only that a country’s networks are generally operational (and whether Google is specifically being blocked);  it doesn’t afford any insight into whether other sites like Facebook or services like Twitter are being blocked in a targeted way, nor does it reveal whether the Internet is being intentionally slowed down or degraded -- a technique pioneered by Iran and currently used by Bahrain to inhibit citizen communications and, perhaps, to prevent larger video files from being uploaded and shared.  It also offers no information as to whether and to what extent a country’s Internet and mobile networks are subject to surveillance.  (Reminder: Activists, use Tor!)

Besides search, two other Google services are regularly subject to politically-motivated blocking:  YouTube and Blogger.  To get a sense of a country’s Internet situation, it’s a good idea to check the traffic data for them as well.  Click the following links to see the traffic data for YouTube (EgyptAlgeriaBahrainIranJordanYemen) and Blogger (EgyptAlgeriaBahrainIranJordanYemen).   

Those data show one interesting anomaly:  YouTube and Blogger traffic from Iran surged in the early morning hours of February 11.  To wit:

One explanation could be that a block on those sites was lifted, at least in part.  That would be surprising, given that news reports indicate that Iran is tightening, rather than easing, its Internet restrictions amid the recent street protests.  Another explanation could be that Google implemented a new, better technique for pinpointing the source of traffic.  If we look at the lower bar of the graph, though, which shows the long-term traffic trends since 2009, we can see that Iran has been attempting to block YouTube since the disputed presidential election in mid-2009, and that traffic levels appear to have just jumped back to pre-blocking levels. I’ve asked Google folks for any insight and will report back if I learn anything.

Bottom line:  The Google traffic data indicate that there is currently no general Internet shutdown in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, or Yemen.

2.  Twitter updates 

A second useful technique is to check the latest Twitter updates from the country in question, using a hashtag and some search parameters.  For example, you can go to Twitter’s website and enter a search like “#Bahrain Internet”.  A scan of the most recent updates will give a more nuanced picture of what’s happening on the ground.

At the moment, Bahraini Twitterers are reporting that their Internet connections are getting slower and slower, that some specific locations like the Sheraton Hotel are fully cut off, and that some sites are blocked.  And indeed, Batelco, Bahrain’s largest telecom provider, just two hours ago released a vague statement apologizing to its customers for “any service degradation they may be experiencing with their broadband Internet service” and asking for “our customers’ cooperation and understanding while we strive to restore full services, which we hope to do as soon as possible.”  In other words, something is happening to disrupt Internet service in Bahrain.  The slow-down could conceivably be due to a massive surge in Internet use, but, in view of Bahrain’s reasonably high-quality network infrastructure, is more likely the result governmental action, either intentionally slowing Internet traffic or taking network elements offline as they hastily install new surveillance and monitoring equipment.  At this point, we can’t tell exactly what’s going on.

Scanning through the latest Twitter updates, here’s a quick summary of what local users are reporting about their Internet connections:

  • Egypt:  Internet up and running normally.
  • Algeria:  Internet up and running normally.
  • Bahrain:  Internet connections are slow and getting slower, with some locations entirely offline.  Unclear whether this is due to an overwhelming spike in use, intentional governmental throttling, or as a side effect to surveillance-related tinkering with the network.
  • Iran:  Severe but uneven disruptions to Internet and mobile phone connectivity.  Reports that most of Tehran is cut off, and that news sites and VPN and webmail services are blocked.
  • Jordan:  Internet up and running normally.
  • Yemen:  Some user reports that, after two days of blocking, the Internet is back up. (Note that this is not consistent with the Google/YouTube/Blogger search traffic data, which may indicate sporadic blocking, or, e.g., mobile-network-only blocking).  Many tweets reporting site-specifc filtering.  The number of tweets from users actually inside Yemen appears to be so small that we can't draw any conclusions with much confidence.  Indeed, it could be that there is a government effort to block Twitter inside Yemen, or just very few Twitter users.
In addition to country hashtags (e.g., "#algeria"), there are usually event-specific hashtags that come into widespread use.  Since Egypt's uprising began in earnest on January 25, it will forever be known in Twitterland as #jan25.  Likewise, you can track events in Algeria with #feb12, in Bahrain with #feb14, and in Iran with #25Bahman.  Looking ahead, activists are planning protests in Libya on #feb17, in Algeria again on #feb19, Morocco on #feb20, Cameroon on #feb23, and Kuwait on #mar8.
Checking local reports via Twitter stream is one of the few ways to assess cellular network status.  Mobile packet data can be assessed using the same tools as any Internet network, but, as a technical matter, cellular voice and SMS connectivity are difficult for those outside the network to test.  You can attempt to call or text someone on a given network, but we lack amateur-friendly online tools that give a larger picture.  

3.  Expert analyst blogs

It is also a good idea to check for timely blog posts from noted experts in network connectivity.  Two that I always check are the Renesys blog (where the terrific James Cowie and his team post), and the Arbor Networks blog (where the terrific Craig Labovitz and his team post).  While the posts are sporadic, the content on those two blogs is always high-quality and reliable, built on solid data and deep networking expertise.

These, then, are three easy, quick-and-dirty techniques for assessing the state of Internet and mobile connectivity in a given country.  In a future post, I’ll explain how to use more complex, less user-friendly online resources like the global BGP routing tables and ISP route announcements to do more in-depth, fine-grained analysis of Internet traffic patterns.