Watching Egypt disappear from the Internet

My colleague at CPJ, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, was the first to mail me. “Just a second ago,” he wrote, “about 10 contacts of mine all disappeared off instant messaging in unison. That cannot be a coincidence.”

That was yesterday, January 27, at 5:34 p.m. New York time. A stream of similar emails followed. Everyone I knew had lost contact with Egypt. On the wider Internet, the Twitter streams and Facebook updates from Egyptian journalists, bloggers, and others, which had been overwhelming us since the protests on the 25th, had all suddenly gone quiet.

Could it be a coincidence? Internet connectivity disappears all the time, for many reasons, almost always accidental. Sometimes, it’s a cut optical fiber. A ship might drag its anchor over a submarine cable. It can be very difficult to determine the true extent or origins of any online disruption.

To find out what was really going on, I posted a message to a mailing list where many of administrators of the American corner of the Internet discuss day-to-day operations. Were they all seeing a similar drop-off in connectivity to Egypt?

At first, the replies were equally anecdotal: someone with a server in Cairo could no longer access it; attempts to reach prominent Egyptian websites were failing. Finally, Andree Tonk at BGPMon, an Internet routing monitoring organization, provided the first concrete evidence of an Egypt-wide shutdown.

Tonk’s article is somewhat technical, so let me explain the background. In order to direct traffic across the Internet, a large number of key machines across the Net maintain among themselves a global index of routes. Think of it as a constantly-updated roadmap of how to get from one part of the Internet to another.

At around 5:28 p.m. Eastern, the routes to almost all of Egypt’s share of the Internet began to disappear from this global index. Egypt went from having 2903 networks connected to the wider Internet, routed over 52 ISPs, to only 327, via only 26 remaining ISPs. Either because of a physical break in communications, or through a deliberate act by Egyptian ISPs, Egypt was vanishing from the Internet’s map of itself.

Craig Labovitz, the chief scientist of Arbor Networks, a company that makes some of the Internet’s most widely-used traffic-monitoring software, quickly added this more dramatic visualization of what his engineers were seeing (complete with typo):

Arbor Network's traffic analysis for Egypt
Arbor Network’s traffic analysis for Egypt

This is, Labovitz writes, a “graph of Egyptian Internet traffic across a large number of geographically and topologically diverse providers on January 27th.”You can see that traffic plummeting to a “handful of megabits after the withdrawal of most Egyptian ISP … routes.”

Note that both Labovitz and Tonk’s analysis showed that not everything was down in Egypt. The rest of my evening was spent working with others to try and find out what was up, and why.

The main network that was completely unaffected by the early lockdown was the systems run by the Egyptian ISP, the Noor Group. There was some early speculation that this was because the Egyptian Stock Exchange was hosted on that network, which led to an online rumor that the service was being kept up to maintain government services.

Actually, Egypt’s Stock Exchange was, like any high-availability website, hosted on multiple redundant Internet connections, including Noor. Noor also offered a DSL service to many ordinary Egyptians, which some journalists have been using to communicate.

Right now, we know that there are also some multinational companies that have connectivity (possibly because their internal networks don’t use the public Net). We’ve heard talk that “five star hotels” have connectivity also, as well as a handful of other networks beside Noor. SMS seems to be down, but mobile phones are working.

What we don’t have is complete answers to why such a drastic Internet shutdown happened. As the hours of Egypt’s disappearance from the global Net drag on, I have heard nothing of any catastrophic accident that could explain it. And as foreign journalists in Egypt are locked down in their hotels or are attacked on the streets as Al-Jazeera, AFP, and others are reporting, as local mobile provider Vodaphone admits–“all mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas”–the chances that this is all just a coincidence grow slim indeed.