Building resilient communication networks

On 27 January, the Egyptian government shocked the world by cutting off Internet and mobile service to repress political activism. The Egyptian case highlights some important technical and political considerations to ensure, and even expand, Internet access under attack by authoritarian regimes in crisis.

In Egypt, Mubarak successfully shut down multiple means of communication for nearly a week. Yet after Mubarak’s fall, Facebook, Twitter and other social media have become vibrant tools for organizing and reporting, both inside and outside the country. By contrast, Libya represents the worst case scenario of a communications configuration, where the government has nearly full control over all means of communication. Yet, the rebels in Libya have — through grit, ingenuity, and support from the private sector — retained some communications access throughout a punishing war.

Shortly after the Libyan uprising started in mid-February, Internet and cellphone access deteriorated sharply. Colonel Qaddafi mimicked Mubarak’s actions, creating an information blackout in Tripoli. Qaddafi controlled the movements of foreign journalists, shut down mobile phones and the Internet, and interfered with television transmissions. By late February, even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and AlJazeera were experiencing difficulties in communicating effectively with Libya.

Protesters and journalists have been limited in large part to satellite phones to get news and information out of the country. Nonetheless, Libyana, one of the country’s two main mobile phone providers, was somehow able to provide free telephone service inside the country throughout the uprising. According to Evan Hill of Al Jazeera, Qaddafi shut down the other provider, Al-Madar and further ordered the monopoly telecommunications company to switch off landline access and physically cut Libya’s backbone fiber optic cable, which connected the phone and Internet in the eastern part of the country to the western part.

Libyana was able to stay online in the entire country because it was not centralized and had key infrastructure and equipment in rebel-held Benghazi. Users had difficulty calling out of the country, and calls often disconnected, but calls could be made, and that by itself was a huge accomplishment. The situation was alleviated somewhat when an Etisalat team arrived from the UAE with a large satellite dish, a modem, routers and other equipment, and was able to connect Libyana to the rest of the world.

What technological and policy lessons can be learned from the Libyan case?  From a technological standpoint, Libya teaches us that activists in countries likely to experience similar problems should invest in “redundancy” as well as “distribution”. Redundancy is an information concept which emphasizes building multiple lines of communication, should one line fail. Distribution is the idea that independent means of communication should be used, and should be distributed throughout multiple users — preferably in different sectors — not centralized.

Further, Egypt, Syria and Libya all have one Internet gateway each, controlled by the government-owned telecommunications company. These centralized systems of control are extremely vulnerable to being shut down by dictators. To the extent that the system remained resilient in Libya, it did so because infrastructure was geographically distributed in areas out of control of the main government. Increased connectivity was gained by the use of VSATs (Very Small Aperture Terminals, like satellite dishes), although they provided limited bandwidth. Finally, the private sector bravely stepped in, in the form of Libyana and Etilsalat, to provide connectivity despite a military threat from Qaddafi.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should secure satellite links, or find other means to create non-vulnerable gateways. Further, ISPs must decide at what point they choose to cooperate with government repression, and at what point they resist. Eventually, even the most resistant provider eventually complied in Egypt. Building a more distributed communications network creates a network less vulnerable to errors and attacks and less easy to manipulate by abuse of authority. It will allow ISPs more opportunities to act independently and resist.

The 25 January Revolution has demonstrated that social networks and the Internet can play an effective role in empowering people and promoting democracy. Yet, the 27 January shutdown also demonstrates the fragility of access, particularly in countries with high governmental control. Alternative private sector gateways should be developed in countries like Egypt so that the government no longer has the power to shut down the only gateway. In addition, current efforts to secure routing should be informed by the range of technologies used to isolate and destroy Internet connectivity. By focusing on building more survivable and reliable communications systems, emerging democracies can help secure a free technological future.

Warigia Bowman is an Assistant Professor in the Public Policy and Administration Department, American University in Cairo.

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