How Autocrats Control Internet Traffic Out of Sight

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A new study shows differences in the structure of the internet between democracies and autocratic countries. While access networks through which most people connect to the internet are similar, in autocracies the less-visible transit networks are controlled by a smaller number of often state-owned entities. (Getty Images)

Authoritarian regimes exert control over the internet through transit networks that operate largely out of public view, according to a recent study by researchers in the U.S. and Germany. The work, published in PNAS Nexus, also shows how more sophisticated authoritarian regimes extend their influence by providing network access in poorer but politically similar countries.

“This is a mechanism autocracies seem to prefer, it’s a lot less visible,” said Alexander Gamero-Garrido, assistant professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, and a co-author on the paper. The work was led by Eda Keremoğlu at the University of Konstanz, Germany.

Most internet users are familiar with access networks, the providers that bring internet connections to our homes and businesses, much like local streets. These access networks in turn connect to transit networks that carry internet traffic across large distances and around the world, like freeways. The companies that operate these transit networks are much less well-known.

“They operate in a shadow space, nobody knows about them,” Gamero-Garrido said.

In the Global North, transit networks have become less relevant in the past 10 to 15 years as large access networks make deals to connect with each other, Gamero-Garrido said. But they remain important in the rest of the world.

Gamero-Garrido, Keremoğlu and colleagues used publicly available Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP, data to see how access and transit networks are controlled in different countries. These are large tables of internet addresses that networks announce to each other so that they can make connections across the World Wide Web. The researchers ranked countries politically based on an index of electoral democracy.

They found that overall, there was not much difference in ownership of access networks between democracies and autocracies. But in autocracies, state-owned entities had a higher degree of control over transit networks. This potentially allows the state to monitor and control internet traffic in a more centralized way.

“There are at least 75 countries, with a quarter of the world’s internet users, where a small group of transit providers is dominant, often a single company,” Gamero-Garrido said.

The researchers also found that state-owned internet companies from wealthier autocracies often provide access networks in poorer autocracies. This creates clusters of technological cooperation within the internet between non-democratic countries.

Policy implications

For those who advocate open exchange of information on the internet, revealing how authoritarians manipulate networks is a first step.

“Almost no one knows about these companies,” Gamero-Garrido said. Some authoritarian leaders might also be susceptible to vanity: a centralized internet structure is also more prone to failure.

“We can also invest in infrastructure that allows direct interconnection,” Gamero-Garrido said. Such Internet Exchange Points, or IXPs, which are often funded in part by states, can provide connections among access networks and reduce reliance on transit networks. Privately owned facilities known as colocations or “colos” provide similar benefits, he said.

Additional authors on the paper, which was published Feb. 14, are: Nils Weidmann, University of Konstanz; Esteban Carisimo, Northwestern University, Illinois; Alberto Dainotti, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Alex Snoeren, UC San Diego. The work was supported in part by grants from the German Research Foundation and U.S. National Science Foundation.

Media Resources

Read the paper (PNAS Nexus)

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  • Alexander Gamero-Garrido, Computer Science,
  • Andy Fell, News and Media Relations, 530-304-8888,

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