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How do you shut off the Internet for an entire country? Three factors that matter

Syria’s Internet shutdown on Tuesday. If you look at the video below, you’ll see the Syrian Internet routes being shut-off one by one in about 47 seconds. That video is basically in real-time and isn’t a supped-up time lapse, says Jim Cowie*, the chief technology officer at Renesys.

Syria from CloudFlare on Vimeo.

 

Cowie says there are a few ways to shut off the Internet and the three factors that determine the ease by which you can do it.

Factor one: Size

First, the size of the country and Syria is a pretty small even relatively speaking.

This idea is simple, less land, easier to control.

Factor two: Geography

Geography determines the ways in which the fiber optic cables that often deliver the Internet can enter the country.

For example, Cowie says, Saudi Arabia is surrounded by the ocean and so there are a lot of entry points for cables. (As a side note, the United States, is obviously a big country, surrounded by water, and so there are lots and lots of entry points for cables).

But back to Syria. It has a small coastline on its western border and so fewer access points. It’s generally thought that Syria has three fiber optic cables entering via the coast and one that crosses over land.

Factor three: Politics

And third, the politics and regulation of the country. That is, how many Internet service providers the country allows. In the U.S. we have something like a gazillion internet providers (Comcast, AT&T and lots of little guys, like my ISP, Sonic.Net). In the case of Syria, the internet security firm CloudFlare has determined Syrian Telecommunications controls all the edge routers, or the routers at the borders on Internet entry.

The easiest way? Cut the cables.

So the easiest way for shut down the Internet is to simply cut the four cables.

In fact, the Syrian government blamed the blackout on the cables and implied rebels were to blame. But a look at the video shows that’s sort of unlikely. Basically, the rebels would have had to cut all the cables at once within about a minute.

So then the most likely scenario is that the Syrian Telecommuncations messed with the edge routers so internet traffic couldn’t come through. Nobody knows for sure, but the fact that Syria is back online now -- with a virtual flip of the switch -- suggests that was the case.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jim Cowie's name. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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