Libya, BART and tethering: Understanding the web’s weak points

If access to broadband is a human right, or even a First Amendment right, then it pays to understand where those rights can’t be taken for granted. From this weekend’s news over Libya’s battle to access the web to last week’s drama over San Francisco’s public transportation agency shutting down wireless access during a protest, knowing where the web is at its weakest can help citizens and consumers agitate for change or protect their rights.

Weakness at the border

We may think of Internet communication as this global network without borders, but there are still plenty of geographical borders in place thanks to how countries broadcast IP addresses and who owns the ISPs. For example in Libya, the state owns the only telecommunications provider inside the country, giving the government freedom to limit traffic both to the outside world and to areas inside the country. In March, the government stopped some residents from accessing the web, and it’s unclear who might be in control at the state-owned communications company that’s causing the Internet in Libya to sputter online.

Egypt, which in January cut off access to the web, took down its Internet by essentially making the country’s IP addresses invisible to the routing tables that direct web traffic around the world, shutting down the method by which telecommunications firms advertise their presence. It pressed five communications companies to comply with the government’s wishes. This strategy isn’t without risks, as it’s fairly clear when a government begins denying access to its people, but it’s also risky because it may have unintended consequences. In 2008, Pakistan ended up shutting off YouTube access (s goog) for the world for a few hours, instead of merely blocking the service within its borders, because it decided to mess with the global routing tables that tell packets where they’re supposed to go on the web.

The solution here? Wireless broadcasting via satellite phones or projects such as building open technology to create mesh networks can help the few, but the many will likely stay offline. It’s also worth noting that killing the addresses available for routing tables takes care of IP traffic, but to disable text and voice calls from a cellular network governments might have to shut down the mobile operator or block them.

Weaknesses at the network operator

Even if the government has no interest in taking people offline, network operators might. For example, the BART protests earlier this month apparently so freaked out the San Francisco transit organization that it shut off cellular access inside the tunnels and stations. In a statement released Saturday, Bob Franklin, president of the BART board of directors, said:

BART’s temporary interruption of cell phone service was not intended to and did not affect any First Amendment rights of any person to protest in a lawful manner in areas at BART stations that are open for expressive activity. The interruption did prevent the planned coordination of illegal activity on the BART platforms, and the resulting threat to public safety.

The Federal Communications Commission is already looking into this action, and may disagree with BART, but the bottom line here is that BART owned those base stations and felt secure turning them off because it deemed the public was at risk. A more interesting scenario would be if Verizon (s vz), for example, shut off access to phones in areas where its workers were on strike last week in order to disrupt their activities. Additionally, one could view Vodafone’s capitulation in Egypt(s vod), when it shut down its service, as a weakness at the operator level, although because governments grant wireless licenses, they have a powerful say in how mobile operators run their businesses.

Failures and limits built into devices

Americans may not realize it, but between devices and OS limitations, many people in the U.S. are accepting a limit on their broadband access when it comes to tethering their phones or even when trying to run different software on their devices, either to run them on other carriers’ networks or to try to add additional functionality. Carriers defend this practice, because it helps them understand the behavior of devices on their networks and maintain control.

When it comes to charging more for tethering, consumer groups decry it as making people pay more for delivering what is essentially the same access to the web. Because higher costs can keep some people off the web, or control how they access content, it limits access to broadband in ways that are not as obvious as a government shutting off access, but still can influence who gets online and what they see.

Acts of God and old women

And lest we only blame authoritarian governments and corporations, it’s worth recalling that the Internet has a physical infrastructure that can get cut by earthquakes, angry kraken and even old women looking for gold. Hurricanes and earthquakes can take out wireless networks plunging citizens back into the dark old days of snail mail, wireline access and carrier pigeons. So no matter if broadband access is a human right, protected as a mechanism for free speech or completely corrupted to serve the status quo, it’s also wise to have a backup plan.

Egypt image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammed Ghafari. BART image courtesy of Flickr user ol slambert.