Egyptian Revolution, Internet, BGP and ASes


…one of my old articles……

Since the early 1990s the Egyptian government has aggressively and successfully sought to extend Internet access as an engine of economic growth but at the same time it has tried to curtail the use of new technologies for the dissemination of information and anti-regime propaganda. During the Mubarak era (1981-2011) the country did not apply any formal limitation to content in terms of filtering or ban. Instead, authorities were typically known for intimidating and incarcerating any alternative voices, mainly coming from young and educated middle class bloggers, denouncing corruption, police brutality, harassment and governmental restrictions. [1] During the turmoil now known by the name of “Arab Spring”, Egypt attracted the world’s attention because of the ‘Facebook shut-down’, the first real case of governmental intervention on the Internet traffic.

On January 27th 2011 news circulated online with regards to a “Facebook shut down” at the hands of the Egyptian government (Whittacker, 2011). The decision seemed to have been prompted by the 25th January 2011 mass street demonstrations and the incessant calls for an end to President Muhammmad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak’s regime as well as a tactical use of Social Media Tools such as Twitter and Facebook.3 What happened is in reality much more than a simple ‘shut-down’. January 27th is the result of a complex and multi-alyered network that touches upon many different aspects and involves many layers and causes rather improbable actors to emerge and become politically crucial. Firstly and most importantly, mainstream media and opinion leaders immediately highlighted the political effects of the shutdown and the sentimental value of social media. I would argue that the shut down also touched the legal and technical aspect down to the very core of the Internet infrastructure. The infrastructural characteristics of the Internet didn’t just or only surfaced (as to use Heidegger). On the legal aspect, in Egypt, like in any other country, telecommunication companies negotiate licensing agreements with the governments in order to get into the market. In the case of Egypt, one restrictive licensing agreement was to comply with any requests coming from the government to limit the Internet traffic in the country ( Freedom House, 2011). Consequently, it could be said that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Egypt acted upon the functioning of the Border Gateway Protocols (BGP) tables, fundamental for any routing decision of the Internet, thus restricting what could be called the ‘communication funnel’ (Cisco, 2012).

Border Gateway Protocols are part of the third layer of the Internet, or that of the actual network. They go under the umbrella term of Routing Protocols, or protocols that allow packets of information to be passed through a complex network of nodes and links until they reach a specified destination that is predetermined by the IP.4 BGPs exchange information between gateways hosts in a network of Autonomous Systems (ASes). The latter is a network (or group of networks) controlled by one network administrator (or a group of administrators) on behalf of a single administrative entity, which could for example be a university, governmental institutions or, even, a business enterprise. In Egypt the Mubarak regime had the possibility to ‘shut down’ the Internet overriding the BGPs through the Internet Service Providers, which in this case acted as Network Administrators. As a result, Noor Data Networks was the sole provider from ten different ISPs to maintain its access to the Internet infrastructure.

 As a result, Internet traffic originating from and leaving Egypt dropped approximately 88%, meaning that government’s ‘rear-guard battle’ (Shirky, 2009) was not as desperate as one would have thought ( Williams, 2011). Though the Internet was eventually restored, its shut down had served to further motivate the tech-savvy population to keep on coordinating their movements and street protests, finding new ways of organising, relying on ham radios, mobile phones and word of mouth. The complex network that was set in motion brings to light concealed layers of the much-acclaimed Twitter revolution, guilty of leaving out the significant data of an 88% drop in traffic that took place in less than one hour, following the withdrawal of 3,500 BGPs. This leads to understanding how an IP routing protocol like the BGP can become a fundamental actant that adds complexity to any reflection of the political debate concerning the democratisation of the Internet and the World Wide Web, as well as their related platforms and tools, whether these are proprietary or open access.

The ‘Facebook shut-down’ of the Egyptian Revolution should then be looked at in a very network perspective, recognising the many layers that enmesh and intermingle in the creation and articulation of a particular event. Delving into this network, it is possible to map out the many entities that were involved in the ‘creation’ of the Egyptian Revolution, which moves between different fields of analysis, from the Facebook shut-down, the protests after years of emergency laws and unemployment to the Border Gateway Protocol, the economic decisions of ISPs to comply with restrictive requests to establish a presence and gain market share in one of the fastest-growing emerging countries in terms of mobile penetrations and sophistication of use. (Vodafone Business Report, 2013) Delving into this very complex network, which is made of many layers and many entities, both economic, political, technical and social, it should also be noticed how every single entity that comes to play a role in the articulation of the Egyptian Revolution becomes a node in this conceptual network. The network is not just established at the level of societal discontent and Border Gateway Protocols but it further extends to the depth of the networked infrastructure of the Internet and in the very algorithmic life of the BGP tables, as I will explain in the next section.

In fact, even the relation between ASes and BGPs is that of a network where Autonomous Systems (ASes) can be considered as a set of nodes (ASes) connected through a preferential set of links, decided by the BGPs tables. On their end, the BGPs tables heavily depend on the so-called path vector algorithm or the algorithm that allows finding the best routes to advertise a certain information packet. The graph that is formed between AS and BGP is loop-free, or a simple graph that ensures quick transmission, free of any redundancies.[2] In such graph it is possible to understand ‘where to apply routing policies’ to allow restrictions on routing behaviour (Cisco 2012). In fact, in an ideal situation, any BGP would indicate the right path for information to be passed through in function of the destination address on the packet. If policies, put in place through pieces of codes written by network administrators, were applied, then the destination and the functionality of the transmission of the packets would not be the only pre-requisites for the information to be effectively passed along. Therefore other elements would intervene such as the packet size or information redirection to a proxy server and therefore to a cache engine.

Egypt owns a relatively small number of Autonomous Systems (which are the nodes in the mapped conceptual network) that share the same information. In addition to this, the country owns two Internet Exchange Points or XPs based in Cairo, CR-IX and CA-IR, both open only to the licensed ISPs with international connectivity. However, because Egypt’s IXPs are fundamental for keeping an Internet presence in Africa, the government could not physically intervene on them for both political and tactical reasons. Instead, this interference took place on the line of code, or more specifically, on the BGP tables that restricted traffic coming from external and foreign sources. This way, when information from a ‘foreign’ source like Google attempted to reach its destination in Egypt, the BGP tables failed to recognise it and did not pass along as it would usually happen. Therefore, Egypt was cut off from the greater Internet and foreign services such as Google, Facebook and Twitter were not accessible.

In light of these technical aspects, a rather oblique question arises, which concerns the agency of an invisible actor that has altered, ‘redistributed and reallocated’ the construction of the Egyptian Revolution (Latour, 2010: 5): the path vector algorithm, or the algorithm behind the routing choice adopted by the BGPs. How could an algorithm unwittingly become a political and crucial actor? How does the path vector algorithm fit into the overall idea of the Egyptian Revelution? How do technical accounts of infrastructures and algorithms enrich the debate over the “Revolution 2.0”? A Revolution that, hadn’t the government decided to stop the “Internet shut down” after 24 hours would have had different outcomes? These questions offer the possibility to reflect more on the concept of the network as a “mode of enquiry”, “a powerful way of rephrasing basic issues of social, theory, epistemology and philosophy” and on that of agency here intended as the surfacing of improbable actors in the “making of” the Egyptian Revolution (Latour, 2005: 89 and Latour, 2010: 2).

These technical aspects also highlight how the idea of construction is not just about something that is created from above and unwittingly absorbed by a subject; construction is also about the question “how to go about an issue”? What realities emerge when the human-non-human interaction doesn’t stop at the understanding of how tools were used but also how their usage and their existence merged at different levels and amongst themselves? Embracing a networked mode of enquiry that includes non-human and un-sociological situations like the BGPs-ASes communication could in fact lead to reflect more on the complex reality of the Egyptian Revolution and less on that of the subjectivity of the masses and the objectivity of the tools used to diffuse a given message, resist the shut-down and bring thirty-two years of regime.

As a result, the actors present in such social and political events become the masses, the tiredness toward a defined status quo; the government, whose ‘interest’ is that of being in power even recurring to desperate political moves as reshuffling the cabinet or promising constitutional reforms; the path vector algorithm and the routing protocols that become the main ‘point of contact’ and that altered the opposition between governmental power and democratic calls coming from street protesters and activists. (Callon, 1986: 232)

To further enrich the network of relations formed around the ‘making’ of the Egyptian Revolution, other actors should be counted and considered, such as the International community bafflement and indignation after the shut down, the hacktivits groups of Anonymous and Telecomix, the women that had to undertake virginity tests and were battered and dragged on the streets by police forces and the widely broadcasted ideas of an Egyptian society finally liberated by Social Media. And the nodes and connections growing out of this initial list could grow virtually ad infinitum.

The Egyptian Revolution studied less through the lenses of resistance to despotic rules and more through those of a multi-layered and necessarily technological network opens up better understanding of the complexity of any techno-social, human/non-human issue that we cannot really escape from and that could become increasingly pervasive in the future.

[1] Freedom House, Report 2011 ‘Freedom on the Net 2011. Egypt’ available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2011/egypt     quite famous is the case of the movie ‘We are watching you’ available at: http://www.linktv.org/programs/shayfeen

 

[2] Gephi relies on Social Network Analysis.

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