Libya turns off the Internet and the Massacres begin

Once more a country, Libya this time, turns off the Internet and brings out the bayonets. For now, though, Web services, such as bit.ly, which use Libyan domain names, will continue to work.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

First, Libya blocked news sites and Facebook. Then, beginning Friday night, according to Arbor Networks, a network security and Internet monitoring company, announced that Libya had cut itself off from the Internet. Hours later the Libyan dictator's solders started slaughtering protesters. As of Sunday afternoon, U.S. Eastern time the death toll was above 200 in the city of Benghazi alone.

Welcome to 2011. While dictators in the most repressive regimes, such as North Korea and Cuba, have long kept Internet contact to the world to a bare minimum, less restrictive dictatorships, such as Egypt and Libya left the doors to the Internet cracked open to the public. Now, though, realizing that they could no longer hide their abuses from a world a Twitter tweet away, the new model autocracies, such as Libya and Bahrain have realized that they need to cut their Internet links before bringing out the guns.

As in Bahrain, Libya's Internet is essentially owned and controlled by the government through a telecommunication company Libya Telecom & Technology. Its chairman is the dictator's Moammar Gadhafi's eldest son. Mobile phone services in Libya are also under the control of the government. So far though the government doesn't seem to have cut international phone services off-perhaps because that's harder to do without cutting off local telephone service.

Unlike Egypt or Bahrain though, Libya is the home domain of a well-known Internet service, the bit.ly URL tracking and shorting service. Bit.ly, which is operated by the U.S. company of the same name, is used in the popular social network client Tweetdeck. Bit.ly users won't have anything to worry about though in the short run.

In a Quora, the social network answering service, response Bit.ly CEO John Borthwick, wrote, "Should Libya block Internet traffic, as Egypt did, it will not affect http://bit.ly or any .ly domain."

Borthwick continued, "For .ly domains to be unresolvable the five .ly root servers that are authoritative *all* have to be offline, or responding with empty responses. Of the five root name-servers for the .ly TLD [Top Level Domain]: two are based in Oregon, one is in the Netherlands and two are in Libya."

He then went to assure Bit.ly users that they "will continue to do everything we can to ensure we offer our users the best service we possibly can. That includes offering options around which top level domain you use. Many users choose to use http://j.mp/ as an alternative to http://bit.ly, given that it is shorter. And some use http://bitly.com. "

Of course, if Libya were to keep its Internet turned off for more than a few days, then the  "ly" addresses will  run into trouble. As Internet engineer Kim Davies explained on Quora, "It is a sense of false confidence to state that country-code domains are impervious to these kinds of government-mandated Internet shutdowns. If a country like Libya decides to shut down the Internet affecting the registry operations of .LY, while it is unlikely to have an immediate effect unless they explicitly empty the registry data, it can have a devastating effect in short order."

"Borthwick states that because the authoritative servers (they are not root servers) for .LY are located outside the country it is safe, but the authoritative servers outside the country are reliant on being capable of obtaining updates from the .LY registry inside the country. If they are unable to succeed in getting updates, at some point they will consider the data they have stale and stop providing information on the .LY domain," continued Davies.

"In the case of .LY, the absolute maximum for that is configured for 28 days (SOA [Start of Authority Record] expiry TTL [Time to Live] is 2419200 seconds). Without external intervention, the availability of .LY domains would be compromised somewhere between 0 and 28 days if the Libyan registry is cut off the Internet," Davies concluded.

So, while bit.ly and other .ly Web sites and services that aren't hosted in Libya won't be seeing their TTL expiring anytime soon, eventually, if Libya were to stay off the Internet, they would die off.

Of course, the far more important issue is that while Libya keeps its Internet off, its government is trying to kill off its critics. The Internet silence that falls when an authoritative regime starts to slaughter its citizens is far more chilling than any subsidiary effect it might have on the global Internet.

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