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Community Networks Growing the Internet Measuring the Internet

The Internet Is Resilient Enough to Withstand Coronavirus – But There’s a Catch

Earlier this year, as COVID-19 began to dominate our lives, the world turned to the Internet. This sudden shift to distance learning, working from home, and families sheltering in place drove up online streaming demand, placing additional load on Internet application platforms like Zoom, Netflix, and educational tools such as Kahoot. There was also a dramatic traffic increase across supporting network providers.

Faced with the specter of millions of daily Zoom calls and endless hours of Netflix binging, many wondered if the Internet could handle the strain of such rapid traffic growth and increased latency. Would it cause a catastrophic failure of the Internet? Our answer then: not likely.

But were we right? As the world is now more than a month into mandatory lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, with anticipated growth in application platform usage, media consumption, and overall Internet traffic, we can now state:

No – increased Internet usage will not cause a catastrophic Internet failure.

As expected, the Internet has remained resilient. There is no single “Internet” to catastrophically fail, thanks to its foundational “network of networks” architecture.

This architecture means that many interconnected participants all have a role in keeping the Internet resilient:

  • Subscriber (“last mile”) network providers, including community networks
  • Backbone network providers
  • Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)
  • Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)
  • Application platform and content providers

Each Zoom call, Netflix video, and Kahoot quiz relies on this architecture to work the way it should.

However, the past couple of months have made it clear that there has been a different catastrophic failure: the failure to make “last mile” broadband connectivity widely accessible and affordable.

This is to say nothing of the divide found in developing countries, where Internet access is even more limited or may be altogether absent. This last mile digital divide has led to Internet connections that struggle to support professional videoconferencing, media-heavy educational tools, or streaming video, especially when used concurrently. Students who have no usable Internet access at home can be found sitting outside schools and libraries, accessing the WiFi to complete their assignments.

In upcoming blog posts, we will review observations, measurements, and statistics from across the industry to examine the trends seen by the participants listed above, and look at how they are handling increased usage. We will also look at how countries around the world are recognizing the importance of available and affordable Internet connectivity, and the steps that they are taking to close the digital divide.

Learn more about the Internet Society’s 2020 Action Plan Projects, and get involved.


Image by Chris Montgomery via Unsplash

Categories
Growing the Internet Measuring the Internet

Is the Internet Resilient Enough to Withstand Coronavirus?

It’s being called the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment. With concerns growing over the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, schools and businesses around the world are implementing contingency plans that encourage distance learning and work from home. Usage of e-learning, messaging, and videoconferencing tools is also growing rapidly, placing additional load on these Internet-based applications and platforms and generating additional traffic. And with more people staying at home, online media consumption is poised to increase as well.

Many are wondering if the Internet can handle the strain of rapid traffic growth and increased latency. Will it cause a catastrophic failure of the Internet? The answer: not likely.

Core Internet infrastructure providers should be able to easily absorb the increase in traffic and demand, especially if the growth is gradual over a period of days, weeks, or months. Cloud infrastructure providers should also have sufficient additional compute, storage, and bandwidth capacity to enable their customers, including the e-learning, messaging, and videoconferencing tool providers, to scale their systems as necessary. In order to keep traffic local, content delivery infrastructure from companies including Akamai, Cloudflare, Google, Netflix, and Apple is deployed in many last-mile networks.

Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) can also help keep traffic local, giving local network providers with a place to interconnect and exchange traffic with one another, as well as interconnecting with major content providers. (The Internet Society works to promote and support the deployment and use of IXPs around the world.)

The more likely place for the failures to occur is with the tools themselves, if they have not provisioned sufficient compute, storage, or bandwidth resources to deal with the increased traffic. Examples of such failures have already been observed in China, where servers supporting Baidu’s iQiyi streaming service, an educational application called Xuexitong, popular office applications including video conferencing applications DingTalk and WeChat Work, and online games from Tencent all reportedly crashed due to increased traffic. These failures are arguably similar to those seen on e-commerce or gaming platforms on high-traffic days, where backend systems are unable to process the higher than normal volume of orders or account activations.

Tracking the impact to the Internet of increased remote work has been highlighted as an area of interest to the Internet measurement community. As a co-leader of the Internet Society’s  “Measuring the Internet” project (one of the Internet Society’s eight 2020 Action Plan projects), it’s of interest to me as well. Measuring the Internet can help identify emerging issues – and help develop solutions.

Measurements done by RIPE Atlas and Oracle Internet Intelligence can help gauge changes in latency, and Internet Exchange Point (IXP) traffic data (for example, from Kenya’s IXP) can help illustrate local changes in traffic levels. But attribution is the key challenge. We can’t definitively state that observed latency or traffic changes are due to increased use of remote work tools and platforms, or increased media consumption.

How Can You Help?

  • If you are an infrastructure provider, such as a content delivery network, share relevant traffic statistics, aggregated at a country and/or industry vertical level.
  • If you are an end-user, find and bookmark the status pages for the tools and platforms that you rely on for updated information about issues they may be experiencing. Downdetector is also useful for learning if other users are also experiencing similar issues.
  • And finally, if you are a journalist, you can be responsible in your reporting and accurate in your headlines. When a single platform or tool, no matter how important, is briefly slow or unavailable, report it as just that – not a broad Internet outage or failure.

If you’re interested in supporting or learning more about the “Measuring the Internet” project, let us know. We’re also happy to talk more about the spectrum of Internet disruptions, from inaccessible sites to complete national shutdowns.


Image by Dimitri Karastelev via Unsplash

Categories
Growing the Internet

From Content Blocking to National Shutdowns: Understanding Internet Disruptions

In March 2019, in a move described in one news report as a “government-imposed Internet shutdown,” the president of Sri Lanka temporarily blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Viber, and other services. In this case, limited access to a class of applications was inaccurately painted as a full-scale Internet shutdown. Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual. Media coverage and general discussion of Internet disruptions often misclassify what happened. The confusion is likely unintentional. Many journalists, as well as the general public, are not well-versed in the various ways Internet access and access to content can be disrupted.

When people can’t get to their favorite social media site, chat app, or video platform, there can be many causes. Maybe there’s a local Internet outage, or access to these sites has been blocked because of a government decree, or a nationwide Internet shutdown has been ordered by the government. Internet disruptions can take several forms, but end users experience the same problem across all of them – an inability to use the Internet to communicate and access content.

If, in the end, the end user experience is the same, why is it important to delineate between the various types of Internet disruptions? Proper delineation can help ensure that coverage and discussion of such events are technically accurate, driving the appropriate actions intended to mitigate or eliminate future disruptions, including policymaking, increased investment, and network infrastructure improvement. A greater understanding of the differences can also help civil society organizations, technical communities, and those affected respond to the disruption appropriately. Responses may range from an acknowledgement that a disruption occurred to increasing global awareness of the current situation to active organization of protests and identification of alternate methods of connectivity, but the response should be commensurate with the scope of the disruption.

Here are different types of disruptions, including why they occur and how they are implemented:

Internet Outages

Outages are arguably the most common type of Internet disruption, resulting from an unintentional or accidental disruption to Internet connectivity at a local, network provider, or national scale. The most frequent root causes of outages include physical damage to fiber/cable, severe weather, power outages, or routing misconfigurations. Outages may also occur as a result of DDoS attacks against core network infrastructure components. These events are generally transient in nature, lasting for minutes or hours.

Content Blocking

Content blocking is an intentional disruption of access to a specific site/application (e.g., Twitter, WhatsApp, Wikipedia) or set of sites/applications (e.g., messaging tools, social media). The blocking is often politically motivated, intended to limit the ability of citizen groups to organize protests, or to prevent dissemination of certain information. Access to other types of content (e-commerce sites, financial services, e-government, etc.) may remain available. There are several ways content blocking can be implemented, including blocking of specific IP addresses/prefixes, URLs, or protocols; filtering through deep packet inspection (DPI); search engine manipulation; or DNS modification. Internet Society Perspectives on Internet Content Blocking: An Overview includes more details.

Throttling

In the context of Internet disruptions, throttling is an intentional slowing of end-user Internet access. It is done with the intent of making the Internet effectively unusable for media and information consumption and sharing. Because Internet access remains available, throttling is harder to detect than other types of disruptions, especially since the impact can be hard to distinguish from network congestion. Throttling on mobile networks can be done by downgrading 3G and 4G connections to 2G, reducing speeds to well under 1 Mbps. Fixed network and application-level throttling can be achieved through the use of traffic management systems installed within a network provider’s infrastructure.

Sub-National Shutdown

Sub-National or localized shutdowns are an intentional disabling of fixed and/or mobile Internet connectivity (or general telecommunications services) around a venue (e.g., stadium), in a city, or at a state/regional level. These more targeted Internet disruptions are generally government directed, are often claimed to be for security reasons (e.g., to prevent remote detonation of explosives by cell phone), or are politically motivated to limit the ability of citizen groups to organize or prevent dissemination of certain information. The easiest way to implement such localized shutdowns of mobile or fixed connectivity is through configuration changes. These changes can effectively disable telecommunications services without having to power down or physically damage the underlying infrastructure, and can prevent the routing of Internet traffic to/from a local network provider. Sub-national shutdowns are often long-lived, lasting for weeks or months.

National Shutdown

A national shutdown is an intentional government-directed disconnection of Internet infrastructure, within a given country, from the global Internet. This is often done through central control of international connectivity. These nationwide Internet shutdowns are usually politically motivated, done to limit the ability of citizen groups to organize or to prevent dissemination of certain information. They have also been used in an attempt to prevent student cheating on national exams. In countries where connectivity to the global Internet relies on a state-controlled telecommunications provider, that provider can remove its entries from the global routing table and drop its connections with international network providers, effectively isolating it. This type of shutdown can be implemented almost immediately. In countries with greater Internet resiliency, each network provider with international connectivity would need to individually withdraw its routing information and drop its connections with international network providers. This type of shutdown could take several hours to implement. Depending on the underlying motivation, national shutdowns may last for a few hours or for multiple days.

What You Can Do

Read the updated Public Policy Brief on Internet Shutdowns, which highlights the impact of Internet shutdowns on local people, economy, and infrastructure and provides guidance to policymakers considering an Internet shutdown. Understanding the different types of Internet disruptions can make us strong advocates to help reduce the number of shutdowns and outages around the world. We become stronger advocates through more educated discourse, better informed solution development, and a greater ability to educate key constituents.

For more information on Internet shutdowns as they occur, please follow Internet Society partners including Netblocks (@netblocks), CAIDA IODA (@caida_ioda), and Oracle Internet Intelligence (@InternetIntel).

Keep the Internet on, and strong. Read the Internet Society Position on Internet Shutdowns.

Categories
Growing the Internet Human Rights

Social Media Crisis Drives Ongoing Decline In Global Internet Freedom

Global Internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019, largely as a result of social media increasingly being used by governments around the world as a conduit for mass surveillance and electoral manipulation. The Freedom on the Net 2019 report, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of Internet freedom, was released on November 5 by Freedom House, and highlights the shift in social media from a level playing field for civic discussion to an instrument of political distortion and societal control.

The Freedom on the Net 2019 report analyzed Internet freedom in 65 countries worldwide, covering 87% of global Internet users. Surveyed countries are designated as ‘Free’, ‘Partly Free’, or ‘Not Free’ based on an examination of, and scoring against, three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.

Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 of them saw Internet freedom decline over the last year, with the biggest drops observed in Sudan and Kazakhstan. The longtime presidents of both countries were ousted, leading to widespread blocking of social media platforms, disruptions of Internet connectivity, and the increased use of electronic surveillance to undermine free expression.

The report called digital platforms “the new battleground for democracy,” finding evidence of digital election interference in 26 of the 30 countries studied that held national votes over the last year. It notes that Internet freedom restrictions tend to escalate before and during crucial votes, and that digital election interference was found to have taken three forms: informational measures (surreptitious manipulation of online discussions), technical measures (including access restrictions), and legal measures (to punish opponents and limit political expression).

Freedom House’s analysis also found that Internet freedom in the United States declined for the third straight year. Although it highlighted that the online environment within the country continues to remain vibrant, diverse, and free from state censorship, the report also called out a number of factors that drove the Internet freedom score lower, ranking the U.S. seventh globally. These included:

  • Expanded surveillance of the public by law enforcement and immigration agencies, with limited oversight or transparency.
  • Increased monitoring of social media platforms.
  • Disinformation around major political events, with both foreign and domestic actors manipulating content for political purposes.

As noted above, connectivity/access restrictions and Web site/application blocking have become increasingly popular tactics. This year’s report found that social media and communications applications were blocked in at least 20 surveyed countries. Internet connectivity didn’t fare much better, with telecommunications networks suspended in 17 surveyed countries. These actions often occurred ahead of elections or during periods of protest and civil unrest. Unfortunately, this remains an ongoing issue, as cited in our summary of the Freedom on the Net 2017 report.

Despite the declines in Internet freedom and their underlying causes highlighted in the report, the news was not all bad this year. Freedom House found that 16 surveyed countries earned improvements in their Internet freedom scores, with the greatest gain seen in Ethiopia. While network shutdowns unfortunately continued to occur in the country, they were more temporary and localized than previous nationwide shutdowns. In addition, the new Prime Minister’s government loosened restrictions on the Internet, unblocking over 250 Web sites, and also reduced the number of people imprisoned for online activity.

Malaysia and Armenia were also specifically called out for their positive progress, and Iceland was listed as the “world’s best protector of Internet freedom”, with the report stating “The country boasts enviable conditions, including near-universal connectivity, limited restrictions on content, and strong protections for users’ rights.”

How you can get involved:

  • Read the full Freedom on the Net 2019 report to gain deeper insight into this year’s findings.
  • Attend the Freedom on the Net 2019 launch event on November 12 for a discussion of key findings and emerging trends in Internet freedom, including the shifting methods used by governments to manipulate elections and monitor citizens on social media.
  • Review the country-level rankings to understand the key Internet controls employed in your country, and other countries of interest.
  • Use the recommendations within the report as guidance for outreach to local policymakers, initiatives within the private sector, and participation in civil society activities.
  • Follow organizations including Freedom House (@freedomhouse) and the Internet Society (@internetsociety) on social media to stay up-to-date on issues concerning Internet freedom around the world.

The Internet Society is a proud supporter of Freedom House and the Freedom on the Net initiative because their work aligns closely with our goals for the Internet to be open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy.