<IT WORLD> Pakistan site swipe exposes web fragility
By Martin J Young
The biggest question in the world of technology this week shouldn’t be why the
Pakistani government blocked YouTube, but how it managed to prevent the rest of
the planet seeing the site and are they capable of doing it again.
In an age where the Internet and technology are the driving forces behind
pretty much everything, blunders of this scale can bring the world to its
knees. Fortunately, in this instance it was only a video-sharing website,
albeit an extremely popular one. Things could have been a lot worse if a major
financial or business
website suddenly became inaccessible across the globe due to the whimsical
censorship policies of a dictatorial government.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority decision to block Google’s popular
video website came on Sunday following the discovery of anti-Islamic movies
that originated from a Dutch politician.
The video was believed to have been a trailer for an up-and-coming film by
Geert Wilders portraying Islam as fascist and prone to inciting violence
against women and homosexuals. The government ordered 70 Internet providers to
block the website as it was running material deemed offensive to Islam and
because violent public reaction - similar to that which followed the
publication of a number of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed last
year - was feared.
The technological turmoil came when Pakistan's state-owned telecommunications
company not only blocked access domestically but also broadcast instructions
globally claiming to be the legitimate location for the website. This caused
the blackout that two-thirds of all web surfers experienced for two hours on
Sunday when they reached the "black hole" created by Pakistani censors instead
of viewing surfing dogs or Clinton’s campaign efforts on YouTube.
Internet routers across the globe were "instructed" that YouTube’s range of
Internet addresses (IP's) originated from the false directions sent by Pakistan
Telecom instead of from their true location. The path to YouTube offered by
PTA's false designation of IP addresses offered a faster route to the site,
which fooled the hardware, or routers, that constantly monitor these things to
speed traffic around the web.
The problem was compounded by the failure by Hong Kong-based PCCW, which
provides the Internet link to Pakistan, to stop these spurious instructions -
most large providers in Europe and the US have failsafe’s in place to prevent
such failures happening. Within minutes Internet traffic destined for YouTube
was redirected to Pakistani Internet providers and into the "black hole". Once
the cyber penny had dropped a flurry of phone calls and communications alerted
the offending providers to what was happening and they rectified the problem.
Latest reports indicate that the Pakistani government has lifted its ban on
YouTube following the website's agreement to remove the offensive content. More
significantly, senior officials at Pakistan Telecom have stated that the global
outage was not intentional, but they would not be making any effort to fix the
vulnerability unless incidents became more common.
The lesson is that the Internet is still rather vulnerable as the multitude of
websites, data and resources on it are still reachable only via a few routers
and access points. Should something happen to one of these systems it could
cause Internet and website outages and chaos in countries further afield.
Recent events have also shown weaknesses in the hard lines that connect it all,
namely the undersea cables that were recently damaged in the Mediterranean.
Whether it be man or Mother Nature that causes damage to these systems, the end
result is the same: Internet blackouts. The likelihood of these types of
problems will increase as the web expands, more people come to rely on it, and
it essentially becomes a bigger target. Cyberterrorism is already the buzz word
of the decade amongst government agencies but what they have witnessed so far
has been relatively small scale. It could be that the days of guns and bombs
are coming to an end and the wars of the future will be fought on an entirely
With an increase to undersea cable damage causing Internet outages throughout
Asia in recent years it comes as no surprise that a new trans-Pacific cable has
been planned. The cable named "Unity" will run from Japan to the US covering an
estimated 10,000 kilometers and it is estimated to be open for business in
2010. The interesting twist in an otherwise dull telecommunications story is
that one of the companies funding the project is Google. Five other telecom
companies, Bharti Airtel, Global Transit, KDDI, Pacnet, and SingTel will
partner Google to invest $300 million in the construction of the highspeed
fiber optic link.
Google's interest in this investment is cost price bandwidth since
trans-Pacific bandwidth at present costs eight times more than on the
trans-Atlantic route. According to a TeleGeography Global Bandwidth Report,
trans-Pacific bandwidth demand increased 63.7% from 2002 to 2007 and is
expected to double every two years from 2008 to 2013. Google is already a huge
bandwidth consumer, especially with the acquisition of YouTube and the
increasing popularity of online videos, all the more of which will be squeezed
through the new 7.68 terabits per second pipe in a couple of years.
Internet In a justifiable case of a consumer fighting back, a lawsuit has been filed
against an online company for buying up and exploiting domain names. Network
Solutions, one of the world’s largest domain registrars, has been buying up
domain names that people search for in an effort to either increase the price
or force customers into using their services, which can cost up to five times
more than their competitors.
The suit was filed on Monday in a Los Angeles US District Court by an LA
resident who experienced this when he checked the availability of a certain
domain name and then was forced to purchase it through Network Solutions as
they had already "held" the name following the search.
It has been rumored that the company has an automated process that will hold
available domain names if they are queried a set number of times within 24
hours as it can then determine them as being more valuable or sought after. The
practice is highly unethical as domain names that are freely available for
anyone to purchase can only be registered through officially approved
registrars of which Network Solutions is one. Chris McElroy, who brought the
suit forward, is seeking unspecified damages, an end to the practice and he
wants to bring it to class-action status.
Since the demise of Toshiba’s HD-DVD format last week, Microsoft has pulled the
plug on its Xbox 360 players and slashed prices of existing units. The software
giant said it would still honor warranties on its HD-DVD players that were sold
as a separate US$130 add-on to the games console. Consumer electronics retailer
Best Buy advertised the units at a cut price of $50 this week as Microsoft aims
to empty its shelves of the failed format DVD player.