Rory Cellan-Jones

YouTube and Pakistan - how did it happen?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 25 Feb 08, 14:30 GMT

Just before Darren Waters broke the story about YouTube's outage last night, I was fielding calls from friends questioning my technical competence. I had posted a video of a recent ski-ing holiday on YouTube, and emailed the link to my fellow skiers - only to hear from them that the video just wouldn't play.

Computer screen showing YouTubeSo I was rather relieved to discover that it was a global outage - rather than my incompetence - which was frustrating my friends and millions of other YouTube users. At first Google told me it was unlikely to have anything to do with Pakistan, or the row over alleged anti-Islamic material on the site.

But by this morning YouTube's owners had decided otherwise - and released this statement:

"For about two hours, traffic to YouTube was routed according to erroneous Internet Protocols, and many users around the world could not access our site. We have determined that the source of these events was a network in Pakistan. We are investigating and working with others in the internet community to prevent this from happening again."

Hmmmm - well I'm not sure that makes it a lot clearer. But here is how a spokesman from the London Internet Exchange - which handles huge amounts of internet traffic - explained it to me, with great patience.

So the Pakistani authorities order the country's ISPs to block access to YouTube. That is done by the country's telecoms provider sending out what is, in effect, a new - and false - route to get to YouTube. The result is that any traffic from Pakistani users to YouTube gets directed into a cul-de-sac. So far, so normal, for any country - China, Turkey, Iran - which decides to control its population's access to certain websites.

But what appears to have happened in this case is that the dodgy route map somehow leaked beyond Pakistan's borders, and was adopted by the giant Asian telecoms business PCCW. Once it started broadcasting this new way to find YouTube, the rest of the world's ISPs altered their maps, sending everyone up the wrong road.

Which all raises some interesting issues. The internet is an open self-correcting mechanism which runs on trust - if someone announces a new route to YouTube, others will take it as read that they are acting in good faith.

What we need to know now is whether this was a mistake or a deliberate attempt by Pakistan to disrupt YouTube beyond its own borders. Google still isn't sure - but it must now be aware that it and other global businesses are vulnerable to attacks from hostile governments.

A decade ago it was widely assumed that the internet would defeat attempts by governments to control freedom of speech and thought. But in this latest encounter the score looks like Government 1 - Internet 0.


  • 1.
  • At 03:53 PM on 25 Feb 2008,
  • Captain Haddock wrote:

Shame on you. Thats just Paranoia. I am a network engineer and it is very easy to currupt of routing tables and it does often happen although not usually to a major website which makes the mainstream media. I am sure Pakistan have blocked other sites before. This was just probably a mistake carried out by an engineer.

  • 2.
  • At 06:03 PM on 25 Feb 2008,
  • Alex wrote:


Bad Pakistan Telecom techie, bad!

Perhaps they should've re-routed the mainframe (like they do in the movies), switched off the internet & switched it back on. That's how many computer problems can be fixed. That or hitting.

  • 3.
  • At 06:10 PM on 25 Feb 2008,
  • Matt Brennan wrote:

Its certainly a worrying trend. Sooner or later the internet will be used as newspapers were back in Nazi Germany. Feeding propaganda to those who view it. I ask the question though, surely ISP's throughout the world should double check these kinds of things. If they don't then like last night, popular websites will crash. Who is to say that these popular websites will not be overtaken completely by not just crashing, but by taking us to sites that have been created in order to show people only what governments want them to see. I.E A pakistani youtube page that people in Pakistan get sent too. If the government there kept it quiet then they could have YouTube open to the public but could just post whatever they like. It will happen and it is very sad.

PCCW does not have any filters with any of its customers. A few weeks back, a few of our subnets were falsely announced by PCCW!. Further investigation indicated that it was a router in PCCW which had stale routes!. The moment the PCCW tables were refreshed, everything became 'normal'. Bottom Line: If the service Provider does not protect itself from false information, that does not absolve the Service provider of it's responsibility. PCCW should be blamed.

  • 5.
  • At 04:57 AM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • mudassir wrote:

just shame on you, you are blaming a complete government for a little mistake done by Network Engineer.

  • 6.
  • At 05:45 AM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Muhammad Adnan wrote:

Pakistan Telecommunication and ISP's of Pakistan clearly knows the rules and ethics for advertising the routes specific to the destination or entire network. Its surely an unintentional mistake committed at any network in Pakistan.

  • 7.
  • At 08:55 AM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • ahmed wrote:

well whoever made the mistake or someone did on purpose, a company like Google should consider security of their websites

  • 8.
  • At 09:19 AM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Tom Russell wrote:

If network engineers are used to making this sort of mistake, why are we paying them huge salaries?

Shame on the engineers for making the Internet so vulnerable.

The point is not that the Pakistani government is being blamed for taking YouTube off-line, but that technically they could have done. This is not a new threat, nor is it a particularly subtle or effective way to take a site down for any length of time.

  • 10.
  • At 01:02 PM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Adam wrote:

This is no mistake. Any Network Admin/engineer know that networking and routing traffic can be routed to a false location or path. Pakistan do have competent IT departments and have just as good IT people in Pakistan then anywhere else. The bit that worries me is that what if this happened to eBay, BBC or Amazon? ? ?

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