happened last week that first struck me as severely underreported
and completely disconcerting, but turned out to be a lesson
on the ephemeral nature of information on the Internet, when
close-lipped governments and corporations refuse to talk—and
bloggers rush in to fill the void.
In late January it was reported that two major undersea Internet
cables that carry traffic through the Middle East and Asia
had been cut in the Mediterranean near Alexandria, Egypt.
The two cables were owned by competitors, and were basically
redundant, and the result was that Egypt, much of the Middle
East, India and Pakistan suffered severe disruptions in Internet
The owner of the one of the cables reported that the cuts
were caused by ships dragging their anchors on the sea floor,
but the Egyptian government quickly stated that there had
been no ships in the vicinity of the cuts.
A few days later more cuts were reported in the Persian Gulf,
near Malaysia and Marseille, France. The Internet outages
spread and became more severe. Reports varied widely, with
some estimates pegging the total number of cable cuts at nine.
The mainstream media in the U.S. kept this story largely off
the front page, and even foreign reporting was spotty. Nobody
was explaining how all of these cables got cut, while apparently
business and personal communications in a large part of the
world were thrown into chaos. Then somebody reported in a
blog somewhere that Iran was totally cut off from the Internet,
while Iraq and Israel had suffered no outages whatsoever.
That got my attention. First, I’d never read much in the news
about Internet cable cuts, so this all seemed bizarre, exotic,
and extraordinary. Second, there were no viable explanations
for any of this not being reported, just corporate rationales
that were quickly shot down. Third, the fact that this wasn’t
being widely reported didn’t mean anything to me. I’ve long
since stopped relying on the mainstream media to tell me much
about anything other than what our government tells it to
tell me, or how Britney’s court hearing went today, or what
its own overstuffed “pundits” think about what “the American
people” think based on today’s poll results. Major news organizations
have long since stopped having people stationed “on the ground”
anywhere in the world until something really huge happens,
and apparently the unexplained severing of Internet communications
for a large and critical chunk of the world doesn’t strike
them as something worth bothering with. Why, they might have
to pull someone off the Roger Clemens beat!
And finally, there is the fact that we’ve got angry lunatics
running the country—lunatics who have repeatedly signaled
a zeal for taking out Iran, who believe that they have the
legal (not to mention the moral and religious) authority to
do it right now, who are seeing time running out, and who
know that their historic legacy of failure is already being
Color me paranoid, but I don’t think it was a bit irrational
to be a little freaked out about all this for a few days last
But, as it turns out, it appears that none of this was a prelude
to World War III or a bunch of clandestine skullduggery. Iran
was never entirely cut off from the Internet. It had the same
slow-downs most everybody else in the region had. The blog
post to the contrary was nonsense. Then, it was verified that
the cuts of Alexandria were caused by an abandoned anchor
dropped by a ship passing through sometime in the past. Finally,
several industry experts stepped up and informed us that cuts
to undersea cables are common, that they happen all the
time, and that all of the major cable companies have fleets
of boats sailing around 24/7 to deal with the persistent,
and apparently inevitable, problem. Most cuts go unexplained.
Who knew? It just so happened that there was a confluence
of individually unremarkable cable-cuts that had a cumulative
effect that was fairly significant.
I guess my question is why it took a week of digging in the
non-mainstream and foreign media to find all this out? To
the extent that it was reported, those who harbored fears
that something monumental was afoot were labeled “conspiracy
theorists,” which strikes me as a little disingenuous, especially
when for at least a week nobody was coming up with a better
And a lesson to be learned is how fragile the global Internet
backbone really is, how all these cables are apparently completely
in private hands, immune to oversight and accountability.
And how a couple of little problems can cause a big chunk
of the world to be disconnected. With the world becoming increasingly
dependant on the Internet to support almost every sort of
human endeavor, that’s more than a little scary.
Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany
and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law
at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the
Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can
be found at www.paul rapp.com. Comments about this article
can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.