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Talking traffic: internet disruptions we saw in Q2 2021

The internet has become such an integral part of everyday life around the world that when connectivity fails, it can have a significant impact. Unfortunately, internet disruptions have also become a part of everyday life. Given the complexity of the internet “stack,” there are potential points of failure within the physical infrastructure, at the network layer, across applications, and even within the local politics and policies. When a widespread disruption to internet connectivity occurs, the resulting changes to regular traffic patterns are often visible in our traffic data.

During the second quarter of 2021, a number of internet disruptions were observed around the world for a variety of planned and unplanned reasons. Here’s what we saw:

Power outages, cyclones, and fiber cuts

On May 21, electrical problems disrupted internet connectivity in Jordan for several hours. In Puerto Rico, a fire at an electrical substation on June 10 caused power outages, disrupting internet connectivity across the island. Severe weather, in the form of Cyclone Tauktae, damaged infrastructure in Goa, India, limiting internet connectivity starting on May 16, although local wireless connectivity appeared to be more resilient than the fixed/wireline infrastructure. In addition to these examples, a fiber cut caused by construction disrupted internet connectivity in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, while a beaver chewing through a fiber-optic cable in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia caused a local disruption to internet connectivity.

Internet curfews

As noted above, in addition to these types of physical infrastructure issues, political issues often drive internet disruptions, with local, regional, or national governments shutting down internet connectivity. In Myanmar, the government implemented a so-called “internet curfew” in mid-February in response to pro-democracy protests, with near-complete internet shutdowns taking place each night. At the end of April, after two and a half months, they ended this practice.

Chilling cheaters

Internet connectivity has also become increasingly critical for education — this was underscored by the rapid shift to online learning as schools and universities shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since 2015, traditional offline learning has driven internet disruptions in a number of countries. If that seems paradoxical, you’re not alone in thinking so. In these countries, the government has taken to shutting down the internet nationwide for several hours each day across a span of several days, or even weeks, in an effort to prevent cheating on national exams. (In the past, as exams were being distributed around the country, the questions would begin circulating online ahead of each exam, enabling cheaters to circulate correct answers.) To this end, Syria, Algeria, and Sudan all experienced exam-related internet disruptions across multiple days during the second quarter of 2021. 

Starting on May 31, Syria implemented the first of nine scheduled nationwide internet shutdowns, taking place between 0100 and 0530 UTC (0400 to 0830 local time) every few days through June 22. The figure below illustrates the impact of these shutdowns on Fastly traffic to Syria — traffic volumes to the country drop to near zero during the duration of the shutdown. The country first implemented these extreme measures in 2016, for both an initial round of exams in June, as well as make-up exams in July and August.

Fastly traffic to Syria, May 30 - June 28, 2021

Algeria has also been shutting down the internet to prevent cheating on exams since 2016. This year, the disruptions occurred between June 20-24, though they were not complete national outages. In a Twitter thread, internet researcher Ali Sibai stated that local sources claimed that two disruptions took place each day: the first between 0700-1100 UTC (0800-1200 local time), and then the second between 1330-1600 UTC (1430-1700 local time). The impacts of these dual disruptions are visible in the figure below — the first occurs as traffic begins building for the day, evident as lower traffic as compared to a similar time of day during the first and last days shown in the graph. This is followed by a lunchtime spike in traffic as the restrictions are temporarily lifted, with the second disruption then clearly evident before traffic returns during the evening. Algeria has historically implemented these internet disruptions to prevent cheating on baccalaureate exams, and has taken additional steps including deploying cell phone jammers and removing internet-capable “smart devices” from testing centers.

Fastly traffic to Algeria, June 19-25, 2021

Similar to Syria, Sudan also implemented nine scheduled internet shutdowns between June 19-30, occurring between 0600-0900 UTC (0800-1100 local time) each day. Resembling activity in Algeria, it appears that the shutdown was not complete, as the figure below shows. Network-level data indicates that traffic continued to flow to Sudatel Network Group as traffic to other local network providers largely disappeared. It appears that this is only the second year that the Sudanese government has disrupted internet connectivity to prevent exam cheating, although the country has experienced government-directed internet disruptions since at least 2013.

Fastly traffic to Sudan, June 18-30, 2021

Conclusion

These nation-scale internet disruptions are used as a blunt instrument, blocking nearly all connectivity in an effort to prevent access to social media sites, where the exam questions and answers may spread. The three countries discussed above are by no means the only ones doing so either, as exam cheating has driven governments in Ethiopia, Iraq, Mauritania, Uzbekistan, and India to take similar measures over the last several years. Iraq, however, announced in 2019 that they had successfully experimented with sending exam questions to testing centers electronically, in an effort to eliminate the opportunity for test questions to leak. Seeing other countries adopt similar technology would serve to eliminate one claimed reason for shutting down the internet.

While it is unclear whether these efforts have in fact been successful at preventing cheating, internet shutdowns, whether driven by exams or other reasons, ultimately have far-reaching economic, technical, and human rights impacts. We will continue to use our data to bring increased visibility to internet disruptions around the world, supporting efforts to fight such actions.

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