Overnight there were many, widespread reports that Egypt has severed most of it’s ties to the Internet (WSJ, CNN, Telegraph) and has also disabled SMS (text) services. What is not clear at this time is how stable the internal communications are at this time – mobile, landline, or net.
While isolating populations and breaking internal communications is probably step 4 in the “Totalitarian Handbook: How to Crush the Opposition”, this has not been tried at this scale before. My guess is that it will have precisely the opposite effect as intended, mostly because the action itself is far more disruptive than anyone realizes at this time – disruptive to the economy, to the normal interactions of the residents, for that matter, even disruptive to the actions of the government itself.
I’ll leave the considered analysis of the sociological, political, economic, and yes religious dynamics mostly to others who are undoubtedly far more qualified to think this one through … but I do want to begin to consider what impact cutting off an entire country from the net might have on that country.
In graduate school I remember attending a seminar in which the speaker (whose name eludes me right now), who was working for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco at the time, told us how the US had actually implemented the freeze of Iranian funds during the then-recent hostage crisis.
The decision to freeze the funds was made in late 1979, so it turns out that after receiving a middle-of-the-night call to freeze all Iranian funds (about $8B dollars), he simply drove down to the SF Fed, walked over to the physical server that was used as a gateway for all large funds transfers (a PDP-11/70, if I remember correctly), and used a bit of tape to stick a handwritten note on the console saying something like “don’t release any Iranian funds”.
Apparently he used pretty decent tape, because that money stayed most-definitely out of Iranian hands.
While this arguably aggravated daily life in Iran, it generally functioned as intended – it caused pressure on the target country as a whole, yet did not directly impact most people within that country, at least not in a clearly discernible manner. This was one nation to another, and when considered in that context was actually a fairly targeted, precise instrument.
By all accounts Egypt is in real turmoil right now, to say the least. While it may have seemed to make sense to the present government to cut off the Internet and the ability of people to text each other, I think that the impact of the unavoidable other stuff that will happen as a result of this action will end up making the situation far worse.
Bad enough, I think, to perhaps be the exact action that pushes the population over the edge and topples this government.
Here are a few of the unintended / at least unavoidable reasons why (in no particular order):
- External Economic Disruption. Everything from the banks to the stock markets to all sorts of companies and individuals need to reliably communicate with their counterparts around the world to function. Breaking those will most likely hurt the Egyptian economy in entirely hard to anticipate, though likely significant, ways.
- Internal Economic Disruption. It’s probably pretty safe to assume that much of the internal Egyptian economy will grind to a halt. Yes part of that is because of the riots themselves, but a much larger part of that will be because businesses can’t communicate with their customers or each other. Pretty simple, really.
- Partial Isolation Externally. Cutting off much of the external net access will certainly create a sense of isolation; however, there will be some flow that continues. That will spread old-school, imperfectly and rather slow by comparison, yet it will spread.
- Government Disruption. This is pretty mundane but probably non-trivial – the actions of the government across a large country will probably be impeded by the lack of the very tools that are targeted here. While there’s probably official communications channels that remain functioning, much of the day to day, informal actions probably are done the way people conduct most of their lives – and that is broken now.
Too Late, We Know How to Talk With Each Other
Perhaps if Egyptians had never become accustomed to facebook, youtube, twitter, email and every other aspect of the relatively open, functional net culture / economy (or at least one that is perceived to be fairly functional – China is a net that is probably far more controlled than we all think, though done in a much more precise, subtle manner), then these actions would have much less impact.
In other words, I doubt if North Korea cutting off international internet access (such as it is) would have much of an impact on that peculiar, sad country.
But Egyptians have, like most of the world, come to expect and rely upon pervasive, fairly reliable, net services for many aspects of daily life.
Take them away and people will notice – the economy suffers, society decays, people’s lives diminish. While technology is not causing the problems that Egypt is struggling with, disrupting that technology will certainly exacerbate those problems.
Let us keep the people of Egypt in our thoughts and prayers as they move through this time of extreme uncertainty and sorrow.
Update: The WSJ posted a more detailed article elaborating on concerns among analysts over whether RIM was in over their head, and how the repeated outages would affect their reputation with business customers. While interesting, note that the analysts quoted focus on the possibility that “RIM has inadequate backup systems”. I think the problem is more fundamental than that … read on for some thoughts as to the real culprit(s).
As has been widely reported (Another Black Eye for Blackberry – WSJ, Blackberry Network Recovering After Major Outage – DataCenter Knowledge, New Delay Hits Blackberrys – NY Times, …) Blackberry users (I am not one) appear to have suffered an extended outage (8 hours+) yesterday, perhaps extending through the evening. Reports of the locations affected varies, but appear to have included the US and possibly other areas around the world.
What I thought was interesting was a tidbit in an official statement from RIM (emphasis mine):
(The) root cause is currently under review, but based on preliminary analysis, it currently appears that the issue stemmed from a flaw in two recently released versions of BlackBerry Messenger (versions 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206) that caused an unanticipated database issue within the BlackBerry infrastructure,” the company said.
So reading between the lines, a new version of a mobile app was released that started putting additional pressure on one or more key databases inside the core service. That problem continued unabated through another release of the mobile app, while the key database(s) continued to be affected, each and every day, until finally outages began to appear (again).
On the positive side RIM has, in many ways, operated one of the first SaaS offerings for many years – the Blackberry messaging service – in a way that is curiously low-profile, yet crucial to many all at the same time. Low profile in the sense that when people talk about SaaS almost no one mentions RIM, crucial in the sense that so many subscribers rely on them to deliver their basic messaging.
It’ll be interesting to follow this a little further, but given the age of the Blackberry software infrastructure it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find relational databases (or perhaps some other centralized data store) here and there throughout the message flow. Perhaps in only some sort of meta role, yet apparently still crucial enough that their failure can take out the entire service.
In any case, when all is said and done my guess is that this will simply be another case of traditional databases defining the scaling horizon of a service, limiting it in ways that are (these days) entirely unnecessary.
While the details on how traditional databases limit the scaling horizon of cloud-based systems require much more discussion than is reasonable for this post, just keep one thought in mind: any dependency that is not intrinsic to the actual problem, to the data itself, must be eliminated.
As much as I’d like to think that this will be the last Mad Kitty of 2009, experience indicates that this will probably not be so … unfortunately.