OWhen the Myanmar military ordered telecom companies to shut down access to Twitter in February 2021, a Twitter user in Mumbai who was posting criticism of the Indian government realized he had lost his access to social media platform. He messaged a friend on Signal: “Am I imagining this? I may be paranoid, but why am I having trouble accessing Twitter? He wasn’t paranoid. Myanmar’s Twitter block had accidentally cut off Twitter access to at least half a billion internet users. The same dynamic repeated itself in March 2022, when Russia inadvertently cut off access to Twitter across Europe with a block designed for its own people.
The mechanics of the Internet mean that access blockages imposed by one country can seep across borders to neighboring populations, or even be felt on the other side of the world by users from different continents.
“We want to recognize that what a country does within its borders does not stay there. The techniques and the pressure they put on telecom operators interconnect globally, as all telecom companies do,” says Raman Singh of the non-profit digital rights group Access Now.
The routing decisions of private telecommunications companies play a huge role in determining online freedom, censorship, and surveillance on the Internet. Whether malicious or unintended, obscure telecommunications instructions can have far-reaching and unintended consequences.
How a Shutdown Can Spread
Behind the scenes, the internet looks like a map, filled with digital lanes called Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes that direct internet traffic. The directors operate like a fleet of figurative Fat Controllers. They 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 centralized control room.
All updates are communicated through the chain of command. When an operator modifies one of its routes, it signals it; neighboring operators notice and then order their computer mappers to redraw the map. A website block follows the same formula, except the reroute looks like a dead end.
When Russia and Burma Separately Instituted Unintentional Intercontinental Twitter Blocks this was due to local telecom providers redirecting traffic to these dead-end roads. This is officially called a “leak”. In the case of Myanmar, Singapore-based telecommunications provider Campana inadvertently cut off access to the social media platform in India and Bangladesh, with an impact that stretches across the Asian region and to the United States. Although the issue was quickly resolved, experts estimated it was temporarily disrupting access for at least 500 million internet users, more than a tenth of the world’s online population.
This event echoed another outage in 2008, when Pakistan blocked access to YouTube for two-thirds of the global internet for several hours. The Pakistani government had wanted to block the trailer for an anti-Islamic film by controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders, but a BGP leak unwittingly redirected users around the world to the Pakistani version of the video-sharing site. Traffic piled up and YouTube crashed. As Doug Madory of network management and internet monitoring platform Kentik said, “It was like a self-inflicted denial of service attack because they weren’t used to handling the global volume from YouTube.”
Another example of the unintended consequences of internet blockages occurred in 2010, when Chilean DNS administrator Mauricio Vergara Ereche noticed that he was sporadically blocked on Facebook and other sites he could normally access. It turned out that one out of thirteen searches was submitted to the Great Chinese Firewall. The reason goes back to the Internet’s collaborative approach to mapping, which relies on thirteen “road name servers”, each operated by a different company in a different location around the world. Each time 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 circular process of how he chooses which of the thirteen. Each time he looks up, he moves on to another.
One of the thirteen members, the Swedish company Netnod, operated a server in China, which required it to comply with Chinese censorship laws. Thus, once in thirteen, the Chilean internet of Ereche was subjected to Chinese censorship. He was not alone. Across the Pacific, there have been reports of users being subjected to a Chinese version of the internet censoring all sorts of content deemed sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party. A tech company headquarters decision had inadvertently placed millions of people inside the Great Wall firewall, even though they weren’t inside China.
The ability of private actors to influence internet freedom is intense, but very few global bodies monitor their activities. Although the United Nations declared internet access a human right in a non-binding vote in 2016, the growing number of countries using the kill switch means there is little political will to tackle to the problem at the institutional level, according to David Kaye. , professor of law at the University of California at Irvine and former United Nations rapporteur for freedom of expression.
He says, “The problem is that the same governments that vote on these resolutions are the ones that actually engage in shutting down the internet.”