The Day YouTube Was Brought Down

We all know YouTube. It might be one of the top modern human experiences. At least in the realm of frivolity and entertainment. Of course, lots of educational material gets uploaded to YouTube all the time, but I’m pretty sure most of the available content is far from being educational.

Thousands of content creators upload their material every single day and more than 500 hours of video get uploaded to their servers every single minute. The machinery needed to handle all that data must be quite complex and extremely well-built.

Having that said, YouTube is far from perfect. Just like all human creations, it’s not invulnerable or unsinkable. Enter BGP.

Border Gateway Protocol (A Not So Accurate Visual)

BGP, or Border Gateway Protocol, specified on RFC-4271, is the protocol that handles the connections between Autonomous Systems and that facilitates route sharing among them. Of course, this is a flagrant oversimplification of the thing, but that’s the gist of it. BGP is the thing that makes your Google search about the new COVID-19 vaccines reach the correct part of the internet so you can get results displayed on your screen. Without BGP there’s no internet. It’s quite a big deal.

Now, you might be wondering how is this related to YouTube being down back in 2008. Well, it happens that Fitna, a short film by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, got uploaded to YouTube. The film tried to prove how the Qur’an encourages Muslims to hate all people who violate its teachings in any way. Because of that, on February 25th of 2008, the Pakistani government ordered their Internet Service Providers to carry out a local ban on YouTube until further notice to prevent Pakistanis from watching the film.

The ban was successful. Too successful. The Pakistani Internet companies basically configured their BGP services to hijack all the local traffic to YouTube by faking the faster routes to the streaming service and then proceeded to send it into oblivion. This was supposed to only affect Pakistan, but BGP did its thing and the Pakistani routing tables were read by neighboring Autonomous Systems, making the system think that the Pakistani routes were the faster way to reach YouTube.

YouTube tried to fix it by specifying their IPs down to 256 addresses, which did not work. Minutes later they reduced the number from 256 to just 64 to try to overrule the Pakistani ones. The whole thing only got resolved after the Pakistanis reverted it back. Almost 2 hours after it started.

How To Prevent BGP Hijacking

A protocol called S-BGP exists which basically uses a private-key approach to prevent BGP hijacking, but this would need an extensive deployment and new network devices would need to be manufactured with S-BGP support.

Massively changing the underlying Internet infrastructure might cause a plethora of possible problems and thus, S-BGP is far from being the default implementation. After all, not being able to watch memes online is a bad thing, of course.

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Software Engineer | Technology Enthusiast

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Josias Alvarado

Josias Alvarado

Software Engineer | Technology Enthusiast

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