Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Fight Between ISPs Partitions the Internet...

Ryan Singel of Wired writes today that a fight between ISPs has stopped internet traffic across parts of the Atlantic. Amazingly, this act of cutting millions of people off from reaching U.S. websites has been described as "for the good of the internet".

"U.S.-based Cogent Communications shut down their links to the Swedish-based ISP Telia last Thursday in what Cogent describes as a contract dispute about the size and locations of the pipes connecting the two ISPs. Like many large ISPs, Cogent and Telia interconnect their networks at multiple points and trade roughly equivalent amounts of traffic, an arrangement called peering. The feud [over providing fat enough pipes at some peering locations] has continued through Tuesday, keeping it impossible for Swedes, along with other Nordic and Baltic residents, to reach sites hosted on Cogent's network and vice versa."

Basically, this story highlights once again the fact that cyberspatial activities are still entirely dependent on real-world infrastructure. The internet exists because of connections primarily between physical wires and cables, and several chokepoints or bottlenecks of cables, particularly across oceans, make people's access to other parts of the world vulnerable to those who control them. Thus, a tiff between an American and European ISP can result in millions of people losing access to large chunks of the Web.

This comes on the heels of last month's internet collapse, when four undersea cables were cut, severing internet access to most of the Middle East.

In a shocking statement, Cogent spokesman Jeff Henrikson explained that Cogent terminated their contract with Telia and essentially cut millions of people off from reaching U.S. websites "for the good of the internet". Which, of course, is nonsense. Partitioning the Web into several large networks, rather than one giant interconnected one, goes against the recognized internet ethos that has existed since its inception. Underneath the subterfuge, all this case represents is a business quarrel resulting from one company feeling cheated by what they perceive as an unequal trade of services.

It's scary that the internet's very functionality is so vulnerable and dependent on these types of narrow interests.


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