When the internet stopped in Belarus

What happens when you turn off a basic human need?

Art: Embrace, Pablo Picasso, 1900

We swim in the seas of the internet every single day.  We use Google Drive, which is production, we order food, we channel our quarantine anxieties, we tweet, we make the internet, and we are made by it. 

But most of the time we don’t think about how the internet actually works. Just like in the story of the two fish where one says “this water’s dirty,” and the other says, “What is water,” we are usually mostly oblivious to the infrastructures supporting our digital lives. I’ve already written about how  the cloud is just really racks and racks of computers somewhere in the Utah desert.  I’ve also written about how the American and Russian internet got started

But how do those computers connect to each other? And what happens when they stop connecting?

Down the packet hole

Chances are, you’re reading this newsletter at home (and if you’re not, I hope you are somewhere amazing. Live vicariously for me, please.) In your home, there is a router, sent to you by a telecom provider (ISP). When you type in vicki.substack.com, your computer sends that information to your router.   Your router sends it to the (technical term) Big Router run by the telecom company. This is known as transit. That router then passes it on to another router, which passes it to another one, until it gets to the correct place. 

The internet, essentially, is a huge, loose collection of groups of computers talking to each other. How do they talk to each other? They send packets. Packets are essentially envelopes that have the address of the computer they came from and the address they’re going to. Inside the envelope is a letter, made of ones and zeros that form either an entire piece of information, or part of a large piece of information that gets put together based on the other envelopes that also have packets inside them. 

If you want to learn more about packets, I strongly recommend looking into Wireshark. (By the way, if you’re interested in what packets look like, when you load websites, they’re approximately  HTTP POST/GET requests, which we covered before when we talked about Nginx.)

Usually, countries have a number of ISPs that coordinate and pass on traffic between themselves, and between ISPs in other countries. This is known as peering.

Peering agreements – the value-creation engine of the Internet – are the carrier interconnection agreements that allow carriers to exchange traffic bound for one another’s customers; they are most common in the core of the Internet, where the topology consists of densely interconnected networks that are principally concerned with the carriage of traffic on behalf of the networks which are their customers. 

Of the total analyzed agreements, 1,347 (0.07%) were formalized in written contracts. This is down from 0.49% in 2011. The remaining 1,934,166 (99.93%) were “handshake” agreements in which the parties agreed to informal or commonly understood terms without creating a written document.

Given all these levels of complexity and international politics, it’s actually pretty amazing the internet works at all. And all these informal agreements working together to provide the internet is one of the reasons I haven’t completely thrown the towel in on humanity. 

However, there are cases when this goes incredibly wrong, and that’s exactly happened in Belarus several weeks ago. (And is still happening as of this week by some accounts.)

The stream dries up

Belarus is became independent when the Soviet Union fell, only to be led by Alexander Lukashenko, an ex-Soviet strongman who’s been the “president” for the last 25 years. (Unsurprisingly, he was also the only dude in government in Belarus at the Supreme Council to vote against the resolution of the Soviet Union.) In the early 1990s, Lukashenko consolidated his power, and, up to now the country has more-or-less been a dictatorship. (Oh, and also, great news, there’s no covid in Belarus.)

Given how it’s been crippled politically over the past 30 years, Belarus has had problems establishing a robust network of networks to connect to the outside internet. Even as late as 2010, people were still using homebrewed LAN networks, literally computers connected between apartment buildings

In Belarus, residential Internet access remained significantly less affordable, primarily due to the continuation of a state monopoly by Beltelecom. The Belarusian state provider did not launch an inexpensive dial-up service for residential Internet-access until 1999. Private ISPs were also required to buy their Internet traffic only from the monopoly provider and at high prices, thus restricting ISPs to re-selling services only to end-users. The private ISPs focused on selling Internet access to businesses and other organizations as their services were too expensive for individual household Internet users. 

For all of this time, Belarus has had, essentially, one ISP, Beltelecom. All internet traffic, all of the packets, coming in and out of the country must go through Beltelecom, even if you are a smaller ISP. You can resell peering rights to other smaller ISPs, and you can route traffic, but ultimately, if you want to talk to Facebook, Google, or literally any site whose servers sit outside of Belarus, you’re gonna encounter Big Bel. Which is probably why Google cozied up to them a few years ago. 

You can probably tell where this story is headed. 

On August 9, Belarus held elections.  Given everything you now know about Belarus, you’ll probably agree that the word elections is doing a lot of work here. This time, though, there was a robust opposition, which Lukashenko of course jailed. When he did, the opponent’s wife, an English teacher and mom of two small kids, took his place, gaining enormous popularity and mass support, to the point where it started to destabilize the illusion of the dictatorship. 

Before the elections, reports of throttled internet bandwidth started to come through Russian language news sites

Reports that Belarus might disable Internet access during the presidential race first started appearing several days before the presidential election concluded. On August 4, for example, the opposition Telegram channel Nexta Live published an image of a letter where a manager at a local company informed his staff about the likelihood of an Internet shutdown and listed instructions to prepare for such an event. Major media outlets soon started reporting similar information, citing anonymous sources claiming that the blackouts would begin late on August 8 (a day before the end of voting).

Some stores started posting signs that paying by credit card had become impossible. The Russian-language tech media started speculating about DDOS attacks

On the 9th, the internet was shut off completely

The first reports about “Bynet” outages appeared late on August 8. Blackouts were even worse the next day, when large numbers of Belarusian Internet users said they could not access YouTube, the social networks Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the instant messengers WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber, or various search engines like Google, Yandex, and Mail.Ru. Many people also reported problems with online payment systems. Both Wi-Fi and mobile Internet signals lost their connection to the World Wide Web.Outside Belarus, Internet users started having problems accessing websites hosted on the .by domain, which belongs to Belarus. 

That night, the only way to reach anyone in Belarus was by cell phone. As a Human Rights Watch editor reported

My internet went out when I crossed the border into Belarus on Monday. I was on my way to Minsk to report on the government response to the unprecedented public mobilization following last weekend’s disputed election.

“So, what’s up with the election results?” asked the taxi driver who met me as I crossed the border into Belarus from Russia. With no internet, he had no idea the president claimed he won 80 percent of the vote. In Minsk, a dozen trucks full of armed personnel drive past. At the apartment where I stay, I am finally able to get onto Wi-Fi. The issue is more significant than mobile internet being cut off. None of the usual messaging services work without using additional tools to bypass the censorship, so for most in Belarus no secure communications are currently possible.

Big Bad Bel Router

It’s unclear entirely what happened, but, given our knowledge of packets and networks, we can speculate. The Big Router at Beltelecom is like a bouncer at a club. (Sorry, can’t get nightclubs off my mind.) and all the packets of information are like people entering and leaving a club. A person comes up to the bouncer and says, I want to go to the VIP area (the EU), let me in. The bouncer checks them out, looks at his list, and says, ok you can come in. Another person comes and says, I’m an extreme EDM fan and I need to be in the loudest place next to the DJ, the bouncer nods, and directs them to the space next to the DJ booth (Russia.) Someone else says, I just want to go to the bar, and the bouncer lets them through to the bar (America.)  If the club management is feeling like too many people are going to America, it can give the bouncer a list and the bouncer says, “Sorry, the bar is full. You can’t come in,” and the people/packets have to stay outside. 

And then, people leave the club, too.  If the manager doesn’t want people to leave the club because it wants them to look full, it can tell the bouncer to discourage VIP people from leaving by offering them drinks. 

On August 9, the Government of Belarus gave the bouncer a list that said that no one can either leave or come into the club. All data must stay where it is. Since Beltelecom controls all the ingress/egress of traffic in the country, the bouncer could follow the directions very easily.  And it turned off the internet. Traffic fell to a trickle. 

Telegram to the rescue

How do you bypass a bouncer/bully that controls the entire country? Immediately people started looking for work-arounds. 

They turned to two main places. The first was a Canadian-based app called Psiphon, which allows you to pretend you’re not in the country where you are by using a combination of tools like VPNs, SSH, and proxies, all of which work similarly in that they connect you to a computer outside of your house, and hopefully country, and pretend that you’re sending all your packets from there instead of your home computer.

Since you need to install the app through either the app store or by downloading it and sideloading it (outside of any app store) on your device, people were offering flash drives with it and passing them around. 

The second was our good old friend Telegram.

It seems that everybody in Belarus follows Nexta Live. During the first days after the country's presidential election, when the entire country went nearly completely offline, this channel on the Telegram messenger service was one of the only sources of information about an escalating political crisis. 

I’ve written before about how much I love Telegram and how important it is to open communication

In 2018, the government tried to block access to Telegram, Russia’s favorite messaging platform, run by Pavel Durov. He had previously created VKontakte, and got in trouble with politicians who wanted him to take down pages of opposition candidates. He declined to do so. In 2014, he refused to hand over data of Ukranian protesters, and refused to block the page of Alexei Navalny, the figurehead of the Russian opposition. As a result, he was ousted as the CEO of the company, and left Russia. He is currently a citizen of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a citizenship which he obtained through “donating $250,000 to the country's Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation, and secured US$300 million in cash within Swiss banks.” All of this is just the surface-level stuff from Wikipedia, by the way.

After all of THAT, he founded Telegram, a messaging service based in Berlin which works very much like Whatsapp, except it’s not owned by Facebook and does not decrypt your messages. 

Telegram became extremely popular in Russia, both for private chats and for subscribing to channels full of news, jokes, and much more. As an aside, Telegram is my personal favorite messaging service. It’s fast, easy, works well, and also because it’s really done 

the concept of stickers well - where else can you find a pack of Mark Lizardberg stickers?

And it was one of the only services that continued to semi-work in Belarus, and ostensibly, one of the ways that the protesters who organized a mass peaceful protest organized

Shut you down? Shut me down. 

Several days after the internet was shut down, it was on and off, flaky at first, and then entirely on. Why?  As Sasha writes in his Russian-language Substack, which is usually about advertising, the government really didn’t want to shut down the internet. Why? Because the government also relies on it.  The entire economy, even in a dictatorship such as Belarus, still relies on the modern internet. 

Sure, there are social media sites, but let’s think through what else relies on the internet: credit card transactions, bank communications, hospitals, SMS between government officials, email, some parts of some electrical grids, the (very scary and flaky) internet of things, grocery stores, and on and on and on, up to and including the very government that is trying to stop it. How will they coordinate if they’re not in the same room together? Build a bunker? 

The government can’t turn off the internet for long because the government, just like the rest of us mere mortals, also needs the internet. The internet, as has now been well-established, is a public utility, just as important as water, as electricity, as heat. If you shut down the internet, you will not only have a mass mutiny, but an economic crisis and hundreds of thousands of deaths on your hands. 

As one person put it, in a very good interview (Russian) from June that actually predicted this

«Из-за отключения интернета получается еще больший скандал, чем если бы кого-то избили» Aka, “There’s a bigger controversy that arises from turning off the internet, than if they (the government) had beaten and tortured people.”

And, ultimately, try as hard as you can, you can’t turn off the entire internet anyway because there are other, what telecom experts have called “pirate lines” in and out of Belarus. For example, Transneft, a Russian oil company, essentially has its own internet that goes through the country. 

Everyone, from knave to king, lives and dies by the packets. 

The Beginning of the End

As of this week, the internet is, mostly and tentatively back. We’ll see what the future has in store for Belarus, but I think this has been very telling in a couple of ways.  First, the internet’s utility for everyone is a safeguard for its own protection in most places.  Second, the fact that, when it comes down to it, the internet is a miracle, a pinnacle of human accomplishment, but what keeps it together and running is people, people who voluntarily agree to peering and transit agreements, people who demand it and need it, and people who, risking everything else, are willing to provide it. And third, that Pavel Durov, and now, Psiphon, is not as nearly covered as he should be in the Western media given how much impact he has compared to Facebook. Some would say the counter-acting impact. 

I am very, very hopeful that Belarus makes a full transition, where the people are in control of the destiny of the country once again. It’s 2020, so I’m trying not to ask for too much, but I am hopeful that maybe the year can grace us with this one thing, and the free internet will win. 

What I’m reading lately:

  1. AI in Nepal

  2. Git for data

  3. Steve Yegge is back with a new rant

  4. Normcore academics

  5. More on my post from a few weeks back on how Google is now the internet

  6. Nothing on the internet ever really dies

  7. I programmed someone out of a job and now I feel bad

  8. A/B testing with limited info

  9. ML systems


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