Why The Internet Goes Dark: Politics, Cable Cuts…And Exam Day

When we hear about a government shutting down its citizens’ internet access, we probably first suspect it’s about squelching political protest. And it usually is. But here’s another cause we’re seeing: keeping students from cheating on school placement exams.

Reasons why the internet goes dark

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During the last several years, the government of Iraq has taken to implementing a nationwide internet shutdown for exactly that reason, to prevent students from cheating during their exams. For my colleagues and I at the Oracle Internet Intelligence team, where we’ve been measuring the health and performance of the internet for more than a decade, the pattern has become pretty well established and familiar in Iraq: multihour disruptions occur each day for a period of 7 to 10 days. In the second half of 2018, we observed such shutdowns taking place in July, September and October. We have also observed Algeria and Syriashutting down internet connectivity nationwide during exam periods.

Tracking internet outages and understanding their causes has become increasingly important for businesses. A quarter-century ago, major internet disruptions had only a few likely causes—such as a backhoe ripping up buried cable or congestion at one of the network access points where backbone providers met to exchange traffic.

Today, internet disruptions can still be caused by a cable cut, but may also be due to power outages, malicious attacks or government direction. And the impact can be significant as internet access is increasingly considered a basic human right, with a rapid proliferation in internet-connected devices, increasingly complex global infrastructure, and tremendous reliance on the internet for large portions of daily personal and professional activities. Even minor or localized disruptions can have wide-reaching effects, including significant economic impact.

That’s why Oracle, in June 2018, launched the Internet Intelligence Map, a publicly accessible tool that identifies and illustrates the impact of internet disruptions at both a national and network level. Using information published by network providers, government agencies and news outlets, we can associate many of these observed disruptions to real-world events. What follows below is a limited recap highlighting a few of these disruptions during the past six months, based on the Oracle Internet Intelligence team’s work.

The team collects data on network paths and network accessibility from millions of traceroutes; network availability and stability through analysis of BGP routing tables; and last-mile activity through analysis of DNS traffic volumes. We observed hundreds of internet disruptions around the world in the second half of 2018, and several dozen were significant enough to be referenced in published news reports or on social media. Of these, the causes can be clustered into a few overarching areas: government-directed, cable problems, power outages, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and general technical issues.

Government-Directed Internet Disruptions

As the internet and social media have become organizational tools for political protest, governments have increasingly used nationwide shutdowns as a means of control. We observed the impacts of such shutdowns in Iraq, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the last six months of 2018. Some disruptions were election-related, while for others, political protests appear to have driven the governments in each country to shut down access. For example, the figure below shows the impact of a multiday (July 14 to 16) shutdown ordered by the Iraqi government in response to a week of widespread protests.

The impact of a July 14 to 16 shutdown ordered by the Iraqi government in response to a week of widespread protests.

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Cable Problems

Damage to submarine and terrestrial fiber-optic cables, which comprise the majority of the internet’s physical infrastructure, can cause significant connectivity disruptions. Sometimes the impact is limited to a single network provider or small geographic area, but disruptions impacting multiple countries are not uncommon.

In July 2018, violent protests erupted in Haiti over government plans to raise gas prices, and fiber-optic cables were reportedly cut. The damage caused significant disruption to the country’s internet connectivity on July 7 and 8, with telecommunications provider Digicel Haiti down completely.

In July 2018, violent protests erupted in Haiti over government plans to raise gas prices, and fiber-optic cables were reportedly cut.

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Haiti's telecommunications provider Digicel Haiti was down completely July 7 and 8.

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Submarine cables are often damaged by ship anchors that snag, drag and break them, or by underwater landslides. Problems may also occur at landing stations, where submarine cables come ashore and connect to terrestrial infrastructure.

On November 18, a reported “technical failure” at the Lisbon landing station of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable disrupted connectivity to African countries. We saw varying levels of severity and duration across eight countries on the west coast of Africa. This range of impacts may be influenced by the redundancy that these countries have in place; greater reliance on the ACE cable would result in a deeper, longer-duration disruption.

Power Outages

Critical internet infrastructure components are often in data centers with backup power, but backup generators sometimes fail, potentially causing connected networks to become effectively isolated from the rest of the internet. For end users, power outages force their computers, routers and such offline, resulting in observable disruptions in metrics associated with user activity.

Widespread power outages occur frequently in Venezuela, and we observed internet disruptions resulting from these outages in July, August, October and December 2018. For example, local network providers appear to have been impacted within the country during a power outage that began the evening (GMT) of October 15, since Oracle Internet Intelligence measurement agents had trouble reaching endpoints within these networks.

DDoS Attacks

When a DDoS attack targets an internet service provider, it can disrupt connectivity for that provider’s customers. DDoS attacks generally work by flooding a service provider with bogus information requests or other junk traffic, with the intent of overwhelming target systems or filling network connections.

On November 4 and 5, a group of internet service providers in Cambodia, including EZECOM, SINET, Telcotech and Digi were targeted by DDoS attacks totaling nearly 150 Gbps, causing subscriber downtime lasting as much as half a day. The figure below shows the impact of the attack that targeted SINET. Many of Oracle’s Internet Intelligence measurement agents were unable to reach endpoints in the network, and the lower number of successful measurements saw higher latencies.

A group of internet service providers in Cambodia, including EZECOM, SINET, Telcotech, and Digi were targeted by DDoS attacks totaling nearly 150 Gbps.

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General Technical Issues

Equipment malfunctions and maintenance are to be expected across a network as large and complex as the internet, but sometimes they can have an outsized impact.

On August 20, Sure Telecom of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory alerted users of a multihour “maintenance outage” that would impact the availability of its services. As Sure Telecom appears to be the sole commercial ISP in the British Indian Ocean Territory, this maintenance outage had a significant impact on internet availability in the region.

Overall, the impacts of internet disruptions will become more and more significant as the internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous in daily life, across both developed and developing countries.

David Belson is senior director of internet research and analysis for Oracle Internet Intelligence.

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