When Internet Shutdowns Spread Across Borders | Internet | Panda Anku

WWhen Myanmar’s military ordered telecommunications companies to block access to Twitter in February 2021, a Mumbai Twitter user who had been critical of the Indian government found that he had lost access to the social media platform. He sent a message on Signal to a friend: “Am I imagining it? I may be paranoid, but why am I having trouble accessing Twitter?” He wasn’t paranoid. Myanmar’s Twitter ban inadvertently blocked Twitter access for at least half a billion netizens. The same dynamic was repeated in March 2022, when Russia accidentally blocked access to Twitter across Europe with a lock intended for its own people.

The mechanics of the Internet mean that access restrictions imposed by one country can permeate across borders to neighboring populations or even be perceived by users on different continents half a world away.

“We want to recognize that what a country does within its borders does not stay there. The techniques and the pressure they are applying against telecom operators are becoming interconnected around the world, as are all telecom companies,” says Raman Singh of digital rights non-profit group Access Now.

People holding overhead internet cables
Internet shutdown in one country may affect internet users in other parts of the world. Photo Credit: Donal Husni/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

The routing decisions of private telecommunications companies play a large role in determining internet freedom, censorship and online surveillance. Whether malicious or unintentional, obscure telecom instructions can have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences.

How a shutdown can spread

Behind the scenes, the Internet resembles a map of digital paths called Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes that direct Internet traffic. The directors operate like a fleet of figurative fat controllers. You manage a map that is constantly in motion. New websites are created, new routes are added and existing routes are modified, all without the luxury of a central control room.

All updates are communicated down the chain of command. When an operator makes a change to one of its routes, it announces it; neighboring operators notice this and then order their computerized mappers to redraw the map. A Website Block follows the same formula, except the redirected path resembles a dead end.

When Russia and Myanmar independently instituted inadvertent intercontinental Twitter bans it was due to local telecom providers rerouting traffic through such dead ends. This is officially known as a “leak”. In the case of Myanmar, Singapore-based telecoms provider Campana accidentally blocked access to the social media platform in India and Bangladesh, affecting the entire Asian region and as far away as the United States. While the problem was quickly resolved, experts estimate that at least 500 million internet users, more than a tenth of the world’s online population, were temporarily disrupted.

This event mirrored another outage in 2008, when Pakistan blocked access to YouTube for two-thirds of the world’s internet for several hours. The Pakistani government wanted to block the trailer for an anti-Islamic film by controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders, but a BGP leak inadvertently redirected global users to Pakistan’s dead-end version of the video-sharing site. Traffic piled up and YouTube crashed. As Doug Madory of network management and internet monitoring platform Kentik put it, “It was like a self-inflicted denial of service attack because they weren’t used to dealing with YouTube’s global volume.”

Another example of the unintended consequences of internet bans happened in 2010, when Chile-based DNS administrator Mauricio Vergara Ereche noticed that he was sporadically getting banned from Facebook and other websites he could normally access. It turned out that one in thirteen searches was affected by China’s Great Firewall. The reason for this is due to the internet’s collaborative mapping approach, which relies on thirteen “route name servers,” each run by a different company in a different location around the world. When a user enters a search term, the internet must find a starting point on the map before it can find a suitable path. As Doug Madory explains, “It’s a round-robin process of choosing which of the thirteen. Every time it looks up, it goes to another.”

Women with laptops
China’s Great Firewall allows the government to inspect data and block IP addresses and domain names. Photo by Liau Chung-ren/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

One of the thirteen members, Swedish company Netnod, operated a server in China, which required compliance with Chinese censorship laws. Thus, every thirteenth time the Chilean Internet of Ereche has been subjected to Chinese censorship. He wasn’t alone. Across the Pacific Rim, there have been reports of users being exposed to a Chinese version of the internet that censored all types of content deemed sensitive by China’s Communist Party. A decision by a tech company’s headquarters had inadvertently placed millions of people inside the Great Firewall despite not being inside China.

The ability of private actors to influence internet freedom is enormous, yet very few global bodies oversee their activities. Although the United Nations declared internet access a human right in a non-binding vote in 2016, the increasing number of countries using the kill switch means there is a lack of political will to address the problem at an institutional level, according to David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California Irvine and former UN rapporteur on freedom of expression.

He says, “The problem is that the same governments that are voting on these resolutions are actually involved in shutting down the internet.”

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