Another round of anti-government protests, another wave of Internet crackdowns. This time, the crackdown appears to be happening in Bahrain.
As demonstrations enter Day 4 in the small island nation of Bahrain, it appears the government is severely restricting Internet access within the country, Arbor Networks told eWEEK. Internet traffic data showed Bahrain traffic was “averaging a pronounced 10 to 20 percent” reduction from normal levels, the company said. The data measures the amount of information flowing in and out of Bahrain via the country’s Internet backbone.
“Governments have this mistaken idea that the way to shut down the Internet generation is to shut down the Internet,” said Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University and an Internet Freedom advocate. It’s the “wrong path,” he said.
Unlike the unprecedented shutdown by Egypt on Jan. 27, Bahrain appears to be merely increasing Web filtering. “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.
Compared with average Bahrain traffic over the previous three weeks, traffic fell off dramatically on Feb. 14 and has continued to decline. Sunday traffic volume was consistent with the previous weeks, but volume was still significantly lower than the average on Feb. 16, when Arbor Networks shared the data.
Arbor Networks collects Internet traffic data from about 120 worldwide Internet Service Providers into its ATLAS (Active Threat Level Analysis System) network.
While technical problems with a Bahraini ISP could not be ruled out entirely, it seems the most likely explanation is that Bahrain is closing off access. There have been reports from Al-Jazeera and several reporters within Bahrain saying various sites, including YouTube and Bambuser, are blocked.
The New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, who is reporting from Bahrain, posted on Twitter on Feb. 16, “Why slow the Internet? The Bahrain government view seems to be that if it isn’t uploaded on YouTube, it hasn’t happened.” Kristof said his hotel doesn’t have any Internet access as of Feb. 17.
In a strongly worded speech at George Washington University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on countries to stop restricting Internet access, stop censoring content, and to protect a “free and open Internet.”
Customers of Batelco, the largest telecommunications company in the country, have complained about a “degradation” in their high-speed Internet service.
“Many believe it is the direct action of the government to curtail the widespread and growing movement against peaceful demonstrators,” reported Bikya Masr, a Middle Eastern news site.
The government is a major stockholder in Batelco, which acknowledged the problem on its Website, but gave no explanation. The company said it hopes to “restore full services” to customers “as soon as possible.”
VIVA, another telecommunications company, blamed its service problems on “extremely high usage” of the Internet-as people download and upload videos and watch live feeds of protests and rallies, according to a Feb. 17 piece in The Gulf Daily News, a Bahrain English newspaper.
Bahrain hasn’t shied away from shutting down Websites or bloggers in the past. Last fall, two news Websites, Bahrain Breaking News and Muhannad Group, were ordered to cease operations because they weren’t licensed by the Information Affairs Authority, according to ITP.net.
“No one, whoever he is, will compromise Bahrain’s bright image,” the authority said in a statement that appeared in the ITP story.
According to Kristof’s Twitter feed, the government is trying to get him fired or discredited for his reporting. “Yes, I’m documenting Bahrain crackdown with video, photos, sound. I’m on the move to get these out before government confiscates them.”
People began to realize that “people you don’t see” could serve as a “powerful part of your social network,” Moglen said, noting that being able to connect with others online “accelerates” the sense of solidarity for a cause.
Nearly half the Bahrainis are connected to the Internet, with about 419,500 Internet users as of 2009, according to the CIA World Factbook. A little less than half of those users had broadband last year, according to the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
Bahrain’s government hasn’t confirmed or denied the latest action.