Libya's disordered Internet

By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator on February 22, 2011 3:52 PM ET

Craig Labowitz at Arbor has been sifting through the evidence of how countries in the Middle East have been blocking and throttling the Internet in the last week. His analysis indicates that while both Bahrain and Yemen had periods of slowed or impaired access, only Libya seems to have taken the drastic step of shutting off the Net entirely.

Libya's Net crackdown, however, hasn't shown the same consistency as Egypt's six-day long blackout. Libya's Internet was initially shut down Saturday night, around 1 a.m. local time, in a similar way to Egypt: a simultaneous withdrawal of global Internet routes. Eight hours later, the Net sprung back to life, only to disappear again just at 1 a.m. on Saturday and re-emerge at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. James Cowie at Renesys suggested that either someone was attempting an "Internet curfew", or else some fluctuating factor of the chaos within Libya was affecting connectivity - perhaps power problems at Telecom Libya's facilities.

I spoke to Cowie earlier today, and Renesys's monitoring systems haven't seen the same pattern today (Tuesday). For now, and from the outside, the Libyan Internet has been available since Sunday. That's not to say that it's available everywhere within Libya. There are repeated reports that connectivity in eastern Libya, where the protests are strongest, has been hampered. But it's hard to tell from here whether such breakdowns in access are at all coordinated.

Egypt's shutdown quickly emerged as a conscious act of interference because of corroborating evidence. Egypt had many companies offering Internet service, almost all of which withdraw access simultaneously. Nonetheless, Internet traffic passing through Egyptian netspace on the way to other countries was conspicuously unaffected by the local blackout. Libya's Internet presence is small compared to that of Egypt or Tunisia, and it's not a transit point on the way to the wider Net (as Cowie says "Traffic to Libya just doesn't go anywhere else"). That makes it much harder to confirm conclusively that Libya's patchwork blockade is deliberate.

Some other blocking actions are definitely the work of Qaddafi's central government. Where Internet is available, multiple news reports have confirmed that Twitter, Facebook and Al-Jazeera's websites have been added to Libya's normal political Net filters. But we just can't say whether Libya's Net "brownout" has been as deliberately managed. In particular, is the Libyan Net's current availability an unlikely concession from the government, or an indication that they can no longer maintain their control of the Net?


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