New tool helps users control which countries their internet traffic goes through

The internet gives people worldwide access to applications and services, but in many cases, internet traffic passes through a few dominant countries.

Researchers including Nick Feamster, a computer science professor, and Anne Edmundson, who recently received a doctorate in computer science, examined the ways online information is routed across national boundaries. Photo byDavid Kelly Crow
Researchers including Nick Feamster, a computer science professor, and Anne Edmundson, who recently received a doctorate in computer science, examined the ways online information is routed across national boundaries. Photo byDavid Kelly Crow

Many popular websites are hosted only on servers in the United States or Europe. Other sites provide global access through contracts with content distribution networks, which often host websites in only a few countries.

Despite that, many of the officials from several countries expressed a desire to reduce their dependence on U.S. communications infrastructure. Brazil has already taken a step further toward this goal. The country even has started construction of an underwater cable to Portugal and developing a large ecosystem of internet exchange points to help in-country networks better connect.

The study by the scientists at the Princeton University take a look at this approach and demonstrated its effectiveness.

For this study, scientists primarily analyzed traffic to the 100 most popular websites in several countries. They found that a large fraction of internet routing paths from Brazil, India, and Kenya passed through the United States or Europe. Moreover, scientists also tracked the routing paths through Brazil, Kenya, India, the Netherlands and the United States by accessing popular websites via virtual private networks, which provided vantage points from within the countries that were similar to those of users in those countries.

They then downloaded the top 100 web pages in each country (as ranked by Alexa) and measured the paths between each client vantage point and the web servers that delivered the content within that country.

When checking for the routing paths, scientists found that more than half of all routing paths originating in other countries passed through the United States. Brazil showed the highest dependence, with 84 percent of traffic transiting the United States.

A large fraction of paths from Kenya, India and the Netherlands also passed through Great Britain. In addition, traffic from Kenya commonly transited Mauritius and South Africa, while Singapore was a frequent stop for traffic from India. These paths generally tended to follow the paths of underwater communications cables between the respective countries and popular internet exchange points.

About 13 percent of paths from Brazil were tromboning, and more than 80 percent of these traversed the United States; some paths also traversed countries such as Spain, Italy, and Canada.

Lead author Anne Edmundson said, “As soon as internet traffic enters a country’s borders it becomes subject to that country’s domestic laws and policies, including things like surveillance or censorship.”

Considering this issue, scientists now have designed an effective solution the Region-Aware Networking (RAN). The tool enables the user to control over their internet routing.

Scientists designed this tool by setting up a network of relays using machines in 10 countries and a mechanism to forward internet traffic through these relays. They then measured the system’s ability to avoid routing traffic from the five countries in the study through other countries.

By testing Region-Aware Networking (RAN), scientists found that the tool (RAN) was more successful in avoiding some countries than others. The tool helps users to reroute traffic to avoid going through a particular country by diverting traffic through intermediate points.”

Edmundson said, “Traffic through the United States was more challenging to avoid. Routes from India achieved the highest avoidance level at 65 percent. This could be for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the only path to a certain website goes through the United States, or that the content is only hosted in the United States and it is therefore unavoidable.”

Jedidiah Crandall, a computer scientist at the University of New Mexico said, “The internet grew up without borders, but now people who care about privacy and freedom of expression are starting to be concerned about where their internet traffic goes. At the same time, nation-states are developing their own ideas about borders on the internet. Where the borders actually are today is an important scientific question that this paper makes impressive progress towards answering.”

Edmundson and her colleagues presented the study on June 21 at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Sustainable Societies.