Lawless governments can break Gilmore's Law

27 July 2013 by Steve Blum
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“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” said Internet pioneer and activist John Gilmore in 1993. A real world test, though, shows there are limits to that law.

Syrian government stops traffic completely, cable cut only slows Egypt. Source: Akamai.

Buried deep in Akamai’s latest State of the Internet report are some interesting stats showing how world events, including the war in Syria and submarine cable cuts, affect Internet traffic. The former resulted in Internet censorship at a brute force level, the latter involved physical damage to infrastructure.

Brute force won, at least for a time.

For three and a half hours on 6 January 2013, Syrian Internet traffic came to a complete halt as president Bashar al-Assad gave a televised speech. Afterwards, “traffic patterns showed lower daily peaks than were seen before the disruption, indicating either a partial restoration of connectivity, or possibly the implementation of content filters.”

On the other hand, on 27 March 2013, when divers apparently cut the SEA-ME-WE 4 submarine cable in the Mediterranean Sea, traffic to affected countries was slowed, but not stopped.

Cutting a country off from the Internet is a short term measure. Damage done to the economy constrains any complete blackout, and ad hoc work arounds eventually emerge, as in Egypt two years ago. But the danger is that dictatorships will find the means to administratively inflict sufficient damage to permanently ban particular groups or content from the Internet, or, by trial and error if nothing else, invent standing security or regulatory measures that have the same effect.

Gilmore’s Law is valid within limits. We can’t assume that someone, government affiliated or not, won’t learn how to operate outside those limits.