Bahrain clamps down on Web traffic as violence escalates

Traffic off 20% from the norm, says Arbor Networks; Bahrain's biggest telecom firm sees 'service degradation'

Internet traffic in Bahrain, the Persian Gulf kingdom wracked by a third day of protests, has declined by about 20%, likely as a result of more aggressive government filtering, a Web security company said today.

Protesters in Manama, the country's capital, were fired on earlier today by police. The New York Times has reported that at least five died in the attacks. The Bahrain military has since moved into the city.

According to Arbor Networks, a Chelmsford, Mass. supplier of anti-DoS (denial-of-service) technology, the amount of data going into and out of Bahrain is down approximately 20% this week compared to the traffic of the previous three weeks.

Arbor's traffic analysis was compiled using data from its ATLAS (Active Threat Level Analysis System) network, which collects Internet traffic information from approximately 120 carriers and providers worldwide.

"Data from 100 Internet providers around the world suggests Bahrain has significantly increased its filtering of Internet traffic in response to growing political unrest," said Arbor Networks.

Craig Labovitz, Arbor's chief scientist, said it was impossible to tell what Bahrain was filtering or blocking. "We just have measurements that strongly suggest some form of traffic manipulation," Labovitz said in an e-mail today.

Unlike in Egypt late last month, Bahrain's Internet infrastructure has remained online.

On Jan. 27, Egypt severed its Internet connections with the outside world by requiring the country's Internet providers to stop advertising routing information.

Renesys, a Manchester, N.H. Internet monitoring company, couldn't confirm Arbor's data -- Renesys focuses on routing, and was one of the U.S. firms that diagnosed Egypt's plug pulling -- but noted that Arbor's information has been "very reliable" in the past.

Bahrain's Internet traffic is off 20%, says Arbor Networks, and may be a sign of aggressive filtering by ISPs or the government. (Red line shows current traffic; Dark green shows expected level of traffic.)

Jim Cowie, the CTO and co-founder of Renesys, said today that the Bahrain Telecommunications Co., or Batelco, has made some routing changes recently. In an e-mail reply to questions, Cowie said that those changes were probably part of normal engineering practices, and couldn't be directly linked to any anti-protest activity.

Batelco is Bahrain's largest telecommunication company. The government is a major stockholder of Batelco.

"As with Algeria or Libya or Iran, it may be the case that they are filtering content, or shutting down local connections (e.g., DSL customers)," said Cowie. "We would not necessarily see signs of that in the routing table."

All three of the nations Cowie ticked off have at one time or another slowed Internet service to their citizens or blocked access to some external services, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Reports last week suggested that Algeria, where protesters have called for the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was preparing to mimic Egypt and cut Internet connections. On Feb. 12, however, Cowie reported that Algerian sites and providers were still "up and functioning normally."

On Wednesday, Batelco apologized to its broadband customers for what the company called "service degradation," but did not explain the problem's cause.

In a message posted to the Batelco site, Ahmed Al Janahi, the company's head of media relations, said engineers were working to restore full service. "We appreciate our customers' cooperation and understanding while we strive to restore full services, which we hope to do as soon as possible," said Al Janahi.

Batelco did not immediately respond to a request for comment and an explanation of the problem it has acknowledged.

VIVA, another Bahrain telecommunications company, has also said services to its customers has been affected, but blamed "extremely high usage" of the Internet for overloading its capacity, according to the Gulf Daily News , an Bahrain English-language newspaper.

The publication said that other sources attributed the slowdown of the kingdom's Internet service to "a very large number of people download[ing] and upload[ing] videos and watch[ing] live feeds of protests and rallies."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

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