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Good Morning, Sinners... with Warren Ellis

How to Shut Down Internets

After shutting the internet down, most megalomaniac dictators believe they will still be around to turn it back on. They take their future for granted, and believe they only need to hide the corpses it will be built on.
December 3, 2012, 8:00am

The internet, as you may have heard some years ago, is a series of tubes. The internet does in fact enter Syria through four tubes—three undersea cables and one overland cable. The undersea cables are set to lead to one single, physical room. All four are controlled by a company called Syriatel. Syriatel is owned by one Rami Makhlouf, a close cousin to President Bashar Assad, incredibly rich and well ensconced within the Syrian power structure.

Last year, while Makhlouf was funding pro-government demonstrations, America was arraying commercial sanctions against Syriatel, due to its having conveniently suffered net outages in regions where government attacks on rebels were happening. Or, as the US put it, acting to "sever network connectivity in areas where attacks were planned." There was also the little matter of recording conversations over mobile phones and turning the files over to the security services. Because, yes, Syriatel owns a chunk of the mobile market, too.

Anyway, if you own the tubes, and have free access to the open ends that poke into your country, you can essentially nail lids over them by switching off the Border Gateway Protocol routes that let stuff reach you through the tubes. Which is what Syriatel did, making all of Syria's IP address blocks unreachable. Nothing went in or out. Libya tried turning off the internet in stages, blocking in-country access to Facebook and the like, and, for a couple of days, the main service providers just turned off their servers. After that, they tried something new. They throttled the country's bandwidth down to almost nothing. Sort of like treating Libya as if it'd been caught downloading a hundred gigs of porn on a Saturday afternoon and punishing it with a bandwidth cap that made connecting with a mobile phone in 1996 while up a tree in Wales seem like broadband. The chairman of both the General Posts and Telecommunications Company and Libya Telecom & Technology, unsurprisingly, was one Muhammad Gaddafi, the son of the late Colonel who's currently enjoying an exile in Algeria. It appears to have been done for one simple reason: It's selective. You can cap everyone else and still make sure dear old Dad's laptop connection just rips along. Hell, he could probably have Ustreamed his own death. (There is, in fact, a terrific rumor that says that Assad literally sold Gaddafi's satphone number to the French DGSE spookshow in return for political considerations, because the French didn't want Gaddafi's alleged dubious links with Sarkozy to get out. But anyway.) In the above two cases, we're dealing with what, in science-fiction novels, might be some strange future iteration of the military-industrial complex, where regime and commerce are bound by blood and the cycle has come all the way back around to medieval ruling Houses in the satellite-powered Weird Present. Egypt turned off the internet by using the Border Gateway Protocol trick, and also by switching off DNS. This has a similar effect to throwing bleach over a map. The location of every street and house in the country is blotted out. All the Egyptian ISPs were, and probably still are, government licensees. It took nothing but a short series of phone calls to effect the shutdown. There are two reasons why these shutdowns happen in this manner. The first is that these governments wish to black out activities like, say, indiscriminate slaughter. That much is obvious. The second is sometimes not so obvious. These governments intend to turn the internet back on. Deep down, they believe they will be in their seats the next month and have the power to bring it back. They believe they will win. It is the arrogance of power: They take their future for granted, and need only hide from the world the corpses it will be built on.

Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis

Image by Marta Parszeniew

Previously: An Idiot's Guide to Time