9/11 and the Internet: Limits and opportunities

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

New York (NY) - Tuesday, 9/11 2001, 8:45 am. Shortly after American Airlines flight 11 had slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, the Internet was hit by an aftershock: Hundreds of millions of users flooded the Web in search of information and opportunities to communicate. Numerous websites collapsed and became images for the unpredictability of the Net. But did the Internet really fail that day?

It was exactly five years ago today on which a series a coordinated suicide attacks shook the nation and killed 2973 people, not including the 19 hijackers who crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and were responsible for another crash near Shanksville, PA. Whether people were directly affected by the attacks or not, whether they lived in the U.S. or not, the massive scope of the events highlighted a common thirst for information and need for communication. And for the very first time in history, the Internet became an instrumental tool to stay informed and keep the contact with loved ones.

Unfortunately, an unprecedented flood of people did not only disrupt cellphone networks, but also Internet capacity. The grade of disruption was substantial enough to question, if the Internet could ever be relied on in a time of crisis.

cnn homepage on 9/11

CNN's homepage on 11 September 2001

The Los Angeles Times, for example, criticized "the network designed to survive a nuclear war failed" which "highlights the weakness of a medium not ready to compete with the reach and immediacy of television and radio" on 12 September, 2001. And even Mark Bercow vice president of wireless equipment maker Atheros told Eweek that "it really exposes the immaturity of the Internet when you try to do what it was meant for and you can't."


The raw data

Looking at the plain numbers, the terrorist attacks had a devastating effect and revealed the limits of the Internet back in 2001.

According to Keynote Systems, a company that measures Internet performance, especially search engines, government and news sites were impacted. Google was up and running, but told news seekers in a statement on its homepage that "many online news services are not available, because of extremely high demand." Keynote said that the websites of the New York Times, ABC News and CNN showed 0% availability in the first hour following the first plane crash. Traffic overload made the sites virtually unreachable: Even on 12 September, users had to wait 100 seconds to get a response fro the New York Times website. USAToday.com had an 18% availability and MSNC 22%. The average response time of the top 40 business websites monitored by Keynote was 12.9 seconds on 9/11 - up from a typical 2.5 seconds.

Some government websites, including the properties of the FBI and CIA showed similar degradation: According to Keynote, the response time of fbi.gov was 126.9 seconds on 9/11; cia.gov was measured at 7.59 seconds.

The experts at Keynote explained that the slowdown of the Internet was the result of increased traffic, not of infrastructure destruction. Despite the vast damage done to the telecommunication networks, Internet data traffic wasn't impacted: The World Trade Center housed countless Internet endpoints, but no "peering points" - junctions that exchange data between major data networks. "The performance impact we're seeing this week indicates massive Internet traffic, particularly from users at work following current events online, that is apparently affecting performance overall. In fact, the immediate and dramatic decline in availability of the major news sites is the kind of performance effect we see characteristic of Denial of Service attacks," Keynote wrote in a press released on 11 September 2001.

CNN.com, one of the major destinations of people seeking information about the attacks, said that it saw record traffic. Between 9am and 10am EST, the site counted more than nine million visitors, which compared to an average of 11 million visitors to CNN on a typical day back in 2001. CNN.com registered 162 million visitors on that Tuesday - and 300 million the day thereafter.

MSNBC.com said it noticed a 10x in traffic on 9/11. Close to 300,000 people were accessing the site immediately after the attacks, the company said.

According to a report of the Pew Internet & American Life Project released on 15 September 2001, 81% of Americans said that they got most of their information from TV. About 11% of Americans said they got most of their information from radio only 3% of Internet users indicated they got most of their information about the attacks and the aftermath from the Internet. But the organization indicated that 30 million American adults attempted to get online news of the attacks on 9/11. About 43 percent said they had "some" or "a lot" of problems reaching the sites they wanted to see. Of those, 41 percent kept trying to access the same site until they finally reached it; 38 percent went to other sites and 19 percent gave up.

With hours passing, websites got more creative in coping with the flood of visitors. From adding web servers, shifting capacities to sister sites, removing eye-candy from front pages and utilizing other information tools such as newsletters, capacity came back online within a few hours: Websites were able to provide text and multimedia information on events, emergency contacts and databases. The Internet's reliability remained the target of critics, but there were positive notes as well: Keynote's senior director Bill Jones said that the terrorist attacks resulted in the "worst ever" drop in availability of the Internet, but argued that lag times were acceptable: "The Internet is performing every bit as it was designed. The Internet has come of age as a result of this disaster," Jones said in an interview with Computerworld.


The other, personal Internet

Web sites, of course, are only one part of the Internet. As we especially learned on 9/11, communications is the other. New York's downtown cellphone network being heavily damaged, email and instant messaging became the only way to stay in contact with family, friends and colleagues.

Major carriers did not lose service, but the sheer volume of calls into and out of the New York and Washington metropolitan areas overloaded existing capacities. Verizon, New York City's largest voice and data communications carrier, said that ten wireless base stations in Lower Manhattan had been destroyed as a result of the attacks. Media reports stated that it took Verizon and Sprint two days to bring in mobile base stations to provide emergency communication capacity. Four permanent stations were still out of order that day, limiting mobile communications capacity significantly.

Research firm Computer Economics estimated that the total cost of repairing the damaged and destroyed telecommunications infrastructure as well as providing emergency communication services totaled a staggering $15.8 billion.

The damage affected Internet Service Providers as well. For example, AOL claimed that it had lost several hundred dial-up connections on 9/11 and the following days. However, the fact that the backbone of the Internet was operational, provided probably the most reliable way for people to communicate with each other during the events of 9/11.

Email became a godsend especially for New Yorkers who needed to reach loved ones. Chat rooms and forums enabled people exchange information and their frustration. And instant messaging saw its first use in a situation of crisis. The major services from Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL saw record traffic, with AOL's AIM jumping to 700 million messages in one day.

In a time when broadband Internet connections were just being installed around the country and dial-up connections were standard, a huge number of people suddenly discovered the Internet as essential communications tool. Researchers for the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimate that "between 4-5 million people who turned to the Internet because the phones weren't working well enough for them."


Did the Internet fail on 9/11 2001?

The answer to that question very much depends on your personal point of view. If you were affected by the unavailability of news reporting and certain government websites, then your answer certainly is yes. If you depended on the communications features of online services, then you may answer no.

The more important question, however, may be the 'what if': Five years after 9/11, just how prepared is the Internet and would it be able to provide a level of information and communication that leads us through a time of severe crisis?

For news reporting and web site performance overall, 9/11 was a dramatic event, but not the first and not the only impact that brought change. Take, for example, the series of Denial of Service attacks against Ebay, Buy.com, CNN, Amazon.com, ZDNet, Etrade and Excite in February of 2000, the rampage of the infamous "I Love You" virus in May of 2000 or the release of he 445-page report of Kenneth W. Starr about Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton on 11 September 1998 - all these events degraded Internet performance an triggered enhancements. Some of more recent ones were apparent during the reporting of the invasion of Iraq, which was frequently described as the "first war of the Internet age."

According to Keynote, some news sites were able to handle 100% more traffic without experiencing disruption. Besides technical and operational improvements, today's news sites are quickly changing in the way they provide information, how it is presented and how it is made available. Today's news sites aren't just about publishing texts anymore. Traditional articles are merging with images, videos and audio. They connect with databases and communities and increasingly count on readers to collect and publish relevant information. It does not need a lot of forecasting talent to predict that the Internet will more and more become the primary information source for any event.

A different issue may be the changing communication environment. Compared to five years ago, many of us depend much more on their cellphone and on their Internet connection - and begin to depend on Internet phone services. Greater dependability calls for greater reliability of such services and at least today we know that Voice-over-IP is a complementing communication tool that cannot replace a traditional phone connection just yet. As it was the case on 9/11 2001, some of these communication services will be unavailable under certain circumstances. From that perspective, little has changed and Email and instant messaging - perhaps with some voice support - could remain among the most reliable ways to communicate for some time.