How Natural Disasters and Political Unrest Affect the Internet

In the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as political unrest in Egypt and Libya, researchers at Northwestern University are analyzing data that provides unique insight into the effects of these crises on the Internet.
Using data from approximately 1.4 million users of Ono and NEWS, software programs developed by the AquaLab research group of Fabián E. Bustamante, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the McCormick School of Engineering, researchers can get a glimpse of Internet traffic from the user perspective.

“Often people look at Internet traffic from either the network itself, at network routers, or from large Internet services, to see how a crisis might have affected Internet activity,” Bustamante explains. “By using data from users of our software and collaborators, we’re able to see beyond firewalls and NATs (Network Address Translators) and capture the view from the very edge of the network – the users themselves.”

By analyzing the data, the team found how users in Japan only showed reduced activity within the 24 hours after the earthquake. In the case of both Libya and Egypt, which have been subject to Internet shutdowns, the events can be clearly seen in sudden drops in the number of online users.

The software of Bustamante’s group can also identify effects of network throttling, a practice of limiting the rate of data transfer to control congestion. Virgin Media, a large Internet service provider in the United Kingdom, recently completed a test of its new throttling policy, targeting peer-to-peer users. The user data showed that the policy had a dramatic effect on its users, at times cutting their upload capacity in half.

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