Op-Ed: What happened to the Internet in Pakistan on 24th July 2020?

Something very strange happened to the Internet in Pakistan on 24th July 2020.

Approximately at 0100, web and network team in a tech company in Pakistan started scrambling to address what looked like a ‘service-outage’ from their upstream service providers i.e. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Azure.

Think of Amazon Web Services, Azure, and similar cloud services as, quite literally, the backbone of the Internet. They provide a massive number of services to various global tech companies, outlets, portals, applications, and are responsible for hosting half the Internet’s content. To give you an idea of how integral these services are to the operations of the Internet as we know it, even platforms like Twitter and Netflix use AWS for the storage of their content.

Troubleshooters couldn’t initially figure out if the problem was in the local service in the upstream providers or just a glitch in the system.

To reiterate the importance of these online services: there is a reason the Internet is called ‘the web’. Think of today’s Internet like a woven web of interlinked services and networks, if even one of them is affected, there is a ripple effect that moves like a tsunami in the ocean and wrecks havoc on the coasts, which, in this case, are the end-users. A single outage can cost companies millions or more in losses.

Later that day, it was confirmed that there was indeed a dip in traffic from Pakistan caused by this apparently “local” service outage. In other words, the glitch, or whatever it was, had to be local i.e. either at the end of local service providers, such as PTCL and TW, or the telecom regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

Around the same time yesterday, the facts were quite clear:

1) There was, indeed, a service outage that affected AWS, Azure, and a number of other services. A number of people reported it on Twitter, and also complained about the denial of DNS over TLS and the unavailability of some VPN services. There were unconfirmed reports of Zoom services getting affected also.

2) AWS and Azure were not experiencing any problems globally, which was also later confirmed by the local service providers.

3) The local service providers, mainly PTCL and TW reported that all was well on their end, and since the outage was being experienced across all the local networks, a problem at the end of local service providers was unlikely.

Tech experts on Twitter speculated that it must be the doing of the country’s telecom regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), and since the regulator has been promoting the mandatory registration of VPN tunnels, this might be a ‘dry-run’ before the actual action.

Some also believe that in the process of blocking PUGB game in Pakistan – an arbitrary decision that was reversed by the Islamabad High Court – the telecom regulator may have been ‘messing’ with blocking the integrated services used the by PUBG game, including but not limited to AWS.

However, the PTA denies any involvement in the incident and advised users to consult their upstream service providers for more information on the unavailability of services.

All services were back to normal at around 1400 on 24th July.

It is, at this point, difficult to say for sure what exactly happened. All fingers point at the PTA but it is also important to mention here again that the PTA has explicitly denied any action that may have caused this outage – a position which should be respected.

However, there is one facet of the matter upon which all involved parties agree – services of AWS and Azure indeed experienced an outage in Pakistan.

These services, as mentioned above, form the Internet as we know it in Pakistan. Thousands of tech and non-tech companies use these services for their daily operations in Pakistan, including but not limited to online orders, data storage, service delivery, and plethora of other businesses. Even a brief outage of these global Internet services has the potential to cause millions in losses to Pakistani companies. It is, thus, in the interest of Pakistan’s digital economy, of utmost importance that the Federal Government conducts an urgent, independent investigation into this outage and make the findings public.

Image Courtesy: medium.com

Asad Baig is an Islamabad-based journalist. He is the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan's leading media development organisation. He's also the CEO of the Media Lab, country's first and only incubator and accelerator for digital media startups. He tweets at @asadbeyg.

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