Ukraine is in turmoil, but it’s still online. Here’s why.


(Renesys)

After months of domestic unrest, Ukraine now has Russian troops and a potential international crisis brewing in Crimea. On Friday, reports surfaced that Ukrtelecom, the country's largest telecom provider, had suffered a major outage in Crimea -- with UPI reporting the company alleged phone and Internet services were almost entirely down in the region after unidentified people sabotaged their infrastructure by seizing telecommunications nodes and destroying cables.

Communication outages are a mainstay of modern conflict -- especially in the case of popular revolts or demonstrations in which protesters often rely on the Internet to organize. In recent years, some countries have faced regional or national blackouts during periods of unrest, including Syria and Sudan. But outside observers say the outage in Crimea appears not be as significant as some reported.

Renesys, an Internet monitoring firm, was initially unable to confirm that there was any outage whatsoever.

But a later chart tweeted by Renesys shows a five-hour disruption affecting Ukrtelecom Friday night. However, it also showed that that other Internet service providers serving Crimea were unaffected.

"We're not seeing outages there," said Renesys researcher Doug Madory, "but who knows what might happen next. Whatever changes are happening are subtle ones."

However, Madory thinks Ukraine's infrastructure is more robust than that of other countries that have faced total Internet blackouts in the past. "Ukraine is not Syria or Sudan," he explains. "It is served by many ISPs with many independent terrestrial connections to neighboring countries. Due to this, it would be difficult to have a national blackout in a place like Ukraine."

UkrTelecom posted a message from Rinat Akhmetov, the president of its parent company SCM, about the turmoil facing Ukraine on its Web site Sunday. "The future of our country has been put under threat," wrote Akhemetov in Ukrainian, who is reportedly the richest man in Ukraine and a longtime ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, saying the internal political tensions threatened to escalate into a conflict that could destroy the "integrity of Ukraine."

"We will work 24/7 to sustain the operability of Ukraine’s infrastructure," he wrote. "This is our biggest contribution to the integrity of the country."

Speaking at the opening of RightsCon, an online freedom conference currently being held in San Francisco, Ukrainian free speech advocate and Mass Information Institute director Oksana Romaniuk praised the role of the Internet in helping citizens organize and share information during recent demonstrations. But meanwhile in Russia, some Web sites linked to Ukrainian protests have been censored.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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