How hard is it to disconnect a country from the Internet, really?
That’s the number one question we’ve received about our analysis of the Egyptian and Syrian Internet blackouts, and it’s a reasonable question. If the Internet is so famously resilient, designed to survive wars and calamities, how can it fail so abruptly and completely at the national level?
The key to the Internet’s survival is the Internet’s decentralization — and it’s not uniform across the world. In some countries, international access to data and telecommunications services is heavily regulated. There may be only one or two companies who hold official licenses to carry voice and Internet traffic to and from the outside world, and they are required by law to mediate access for everyone else.
Under those circumstances, it’s almost trivial for a government to issue an order that would take down the Internet. Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet. Of course, this level of centralization also makes it much harder for the government to defend the nation’s Internet infrastructure against a determined opponent, who knows they can do a lot of damage by hitting just a few targets.
With good reason, most countries have gradually moved towards more diversity in their Internet infrastructure over the last decade. Sometimes that happens all by itself, as a side effect of economic growth and market forces, as many different companies move into the market and compete to provide the cheapest international Internet access to the citizenry.
Even then, though, there’s often a government regulator standing by, allowing (or better yet, encouraging) the formation of a diverse web of direct connections to international providers. Here’s the problem: increased diversity at the international frontier often spells less money for the national incumbent provider (typically the old telephone company, often owned by the government itself). Without some strong legal prodding and guidance from the telecoms regulator, significant diversification in smaller markets with a strong incumbent can take a long, long time.
Here’s a map of the world, with countries colored according to the Internet diversity at the international frontier. We did a census, from our own view of the global Internet routing table, of all the domestic providers in each country who have direct connections (visible in routing) to foreign providers.