The Middle Eastern Nation Most Vulnerable to Internet Shutdown

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It's not Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria. With a single Internet service provider, Qatar's Web access could go down with just one click.

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Since revolutions broke out across the Middle East in January, cutting off Internet access is in vogue with the world's dictators. Hosni Mubarak ordered a blackout of Egypt's access "unprecedented in Internet history" ahead of massive protests in Tahrir Square in late January, censoring social networking sites and disabling four major Egyptian ISPs. Muammar Qaddafi followed suit in Libya in February, although Libyans reported spotty Internet access through the first few weeks of March. Syria's Internet access went down for 24 hours in June; With protestors struggling under a violent crackdown by security forces, a full blackout seems unlikely at this time. The aggressive shutdowns by autocratic regimes lead the U.N. to revisit the idea of Internet access as a basic human right. For international affairs experts and technologists watching the events of the Arab Spring from afar, the ability to tweet, text, and blog has a become virtually sacrosanct.

Any nation with an autocratic state runs the risk of a deliberate Internet blackout: If a regime wants to keep protestors and activists from using the Web to coordinate, they'll find a way. But if you bracket out a nation's particular political ecosystem, the Gulf state with the greatest risk of Internet blackout is Qatar.

Qatar's weakness is that the nation only has a single ISP provider, Qtel. The key to disabling a nation's access to the Web lies in Internet choke points, the physical space where a connection lives. Andrew Blum wrote about the issue for The Atlantic after Egypt's shutdown:

Terremark owns one of the single most important buildings on the global Internet, a giant fortress on the edge of Miami's downtown known as the NAP of the Americas.

The Internet is a network of networks. But what's often forgotten is that those networks actually have to physically connect -- one router to another -- often through something as simple and tangible as a yellow-jacketed fiber-optic cable. It's safe to suspect a network engineer in Egypt had a few of them dangling in his hands last night.

Terremark's building in Miami is the physical meeting point for more than 160 networks from around the world. They meet there because of the building's excellent security, its redundant power systems, and its thick concrete walls, designed to survive a category 5 hurricane. But above all, they meet there because the building is "carrier-neutral." It's a Switzerland of the Internet, an unallied territory where competing networks can connect to each other.

That Qtel is the exclusive provider of Internet access in Qatar has a few implications. First, any infrastructure damage means a disruption in communication between Qatar and other Gulf states, as was the case in 2008 when an undersea cable connecting Qatar with the United Arab Emirates was damaged. Second, the lack of any redundancy means that a technical disaster means a blackout in service across the entire country. Egypt has nearly 220 ISPs: four companies -- Egynet, LINKdotNET, TE Data, and NOL -- own and maintain the necessary infrastructure. Libya has four ISPs: AlFalak, Bayt Al Shams (BsISP), Libya Telecom & Technology (LTT), and Modern World Telecom, each one capable of providing access where one of the others fails. Syria has around 10 major ISPs. If Qtel goes down, Qatar disappears off the face of the Web.

Apart from a technical disruption like a bomb or a natural disaster, a single ISP poses risks in the event of deliberate bans by certain sites. In 2006, Wikipedia blocked the IP address of Qtel's proxy server from editing the site after a series of anonymous incidents of vandalism and spam in December 2006. The block kept nearly the entire nation off of Wikipedia. The encyclopedia now has a specific warning up for site editors regarding Qatar's IP, 82.148.97.69:

This IP address is registered to Qtel. It is the IP address for many people in Qatar, if not the entire country. As such, it should only be blocked for short periods of time. To avoid these short blocks and from being alerted to changes to this talk page, contributors from Qatar may register for an account. This only requires the creation of a username and a password. No personal information has to be given, not even an email address.

If a person using a registered account for vandalism is blocked, a software feature may cause the IP address to be temporarily blocked. This is called an autoblock. The IP addresses of registered editors are not visible for privacy reasons, so administrators have no idea when this will happen to a particular IP address, such as this one. To have this IP unblocked because of an autoblock, click on the "new section" tab at the top of the article and put {{Unblock-auto|This IP address, which is shared by most or all of the country of Qatar, has been autoblocked.}} in the large text box. Put "unblock" or something similar in the subject/headline field. The text to the right of the "|" can be changed to your liking. Click the "Save page" button after you are finished. It may take a little while for your request to be noticed and acted upon.

There is no way to permanently damage Wikipedia, because it is always possible to revert to an unmolested version of a page. Click on the "history" tab at the top of this page for an example. Each line that you see is a past version of this page. The page can be changed back to one of those versions in a few seconds by any user. Admins can revert all changes that a user or IP address has made to an article with a single click, which makes even vandalism spread across numerous pages easy to fix. In addition, copies of Wikipedia are made regularly and stored offline. A registered account will be permanently blocked if it appears that it has been created for vandalism, and an IP address will be temporarily blocked for vandalism, if necessary, even if it has many users. Therefore, please consider the effect on other people in Qatar before vandalizing Wikipedia.

Qatar's government could easily shut down Internet access during a political exigency: The state has an unelected, monarchic, emirate-type government with virtually no democratic institutions or elections, and a serious uprising against the Emir would probably face an almost immediate rebuke. The likelihood of this happening is minimal: Qatar is one of the richest nations in the world (per capita), and protests didn't take hold during the early weeks of the Arab Spring because, simply, "there was no reason to protest." But, in terms of the technological integrity, Qatar's Internet could be wiped out with a spilled glass of water on a particularly essential mainframe.

Image: Egypt's departure from the Internet during the January 25th revolution/Arbor Networks.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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