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Something happened last week that first struck me as severely underreported and completely disconcerting, but turned out to be a lesson on the ephemeral nature of information on the Internet, when close-lipped governments and corporations refuse to talk—and bloggers rush in to fill the void.

In late January it was reported that two major undersea Internet cables that carry traffic through the Middle East and Asia had been cut in the Mediterranean near Alexandria, Egypt. The two cables were owned by competitors, and were basically redundant, and the result was that Egypt, much of the Middle East, India and Pakistan suffered severe disruptions in Internet traffic.

The owner of the one of the cables reported that the cuts were caused by ships dragging their anchors on the sea floor, but the Egyptian government quickly stated that there had been no ships in the vicinity of the cuts.

A few days later more cuts were reported in the Persian Gulf, near Malaysia and Marseille, France. The Internet outages spread and became more severe. Reports varied widely, with some estimates pegging the total number of cable cuts at nine. The mainstream media in the U.S. kept this story largely off the front page, and even foreign reporting was spotty. Nobody was explaining how all of these cables got cut, while apparently business and personal communications in a large part of the world were thrown into chaos. Then somebody reported in a blog somewhere that Iran was totally cut off from the Internet, while Iraq and Israel had suffered no outages whatsoever.

That got my attention. First, I’d never read much in the news about Internet cable cuts, so this all seemed bizarre, exotic, and extraordinary. Second, there were no viable explanations for any of this not being reported, just corporate rationales that were quickly shot down. Third, the fact that this wasn’t being widely reported didn’t mean anything to me. I’ve long since stopped relying on the mainstream media to tell me much about anything other than what our government tells it to tell me, or how Britney’s court hearing went today, or what its own overstuffed “pundits” think about what “the American people” think based on today’s poll results. Major news organizations have long since stopped having people stationed “on the ground” anywhere in the world until something really huge happens, and apparently the unexplained severing of Internet communications for a large and critical chunk of the world doesn’t strike them as something worth bothering with. Why, they might have to pull someone off the Roger Clemens beat!

And finally, there is the fact that we’ve got angry lunatics running the country—lunatics who have repeatedly signaled a zeal for taking out Iran, who believe that they have the legal (not to mention the moral and religious) authority to do it right now, who are seeing time running out, and who know that their historic legacy of failure is already being written.

Color me paranoid, but I don’t think it was a bit irrational to be a little freaked out about all this for a few days last week.

But, as it turns out, it appears that none of this was a prelude to World War III or a bunch of clandestine skullduggery. Iran was never entirely cut off from the Internet. It had the same slow-downs most everybody else in the region had. The blog post to the contrary was nonsense. Then, it was verified that the cuts of Alexandria were caused by an abandoned anchor dropped by a ship passing through sometime in the past. Finally, several industry experts stepped up and informed us that cuts to undersea cables are common, that they happen all the time, and that all of the major cable companies have fleets of boats sailing around 24/7 to deal with the persistent, and apparently inevitable, problem. Most cuts go unexplained. Who knew? It just so happened that there was a confluence of individually unremarkable cable-cuts that had a cumulative effect that was fairly significant.

I guess my question is why it took a week of digging in the non-mainstream and foreign media to find all this out? To the extent that it was reported, those who harbored fears that something monumental was afoot were labeled “conspiracy theorists,” which strikes me as a little disingenuous, especially when for at least a week nobody was coming up with a better explanation.

And a lesson to be learned is how fragile the global Internet backbone really is, how all these cables are apparently completely in private hands, immune to oversight and accountability. And how a couple of little problems can cause a big chunk of the world to be disconnected. With the world becoming increasingly dependant on the Internet to support almost every sort of human endeavor, that’s more than a little scary.

—Paul Rapp

 

Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can be found at www.paul rapp.com. Comments about this article can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.


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