Cyberspace was rocked Tuesday by the horrific sequence of terrorist attacks, with repercussions that rippled through communications systems, chat rooms, and computer companies.
News-hungry surfers bogged down the Internet's infrastructure, searching for information about the tragedy and contact with loved ones. Affected companies, such as those housed in the collapsed World Trade Center and the airlines whose jets were hijacked for use in the attacks, posted information and referrals on their often-clogged Web sites.
Many friends and family members resorted to e-mail when phone lines in the Northeast became stressed with callers. Traffic was so intense at both the CNN.com and ABCNews.com Web sites that they were down Tuesday morning for an hour. However, the Internet itself remained stable through the extraordinarily heavy traffic.
"There seemed to be no severe impact on the Internet," says Dan Berkowitz, director of corporate communications at Keynote Systems, a Web traffic-monitoring service.
Service outages were reported by Internet service providers Earthlink and AT&T WorldNet.
Earthlink posted the understatement that "due to an emergency in the New York area" customers may get busy signals, authorization failures, or no connectivity.
WorldCom Telecommunications representatives told its Northeast customers to expect major outages in both telephone and Internet networks. On Tuesday afternoon, representatives said WorldCom could not yet assess the impact of extraordinarily heavy traffic on its network.
Keynote Systems reports CNN.com and ABCNews.com were down for an hour. The service says FoxNews.com and MSNBC.com both were slammed with so many users that one out of ten visitors could not connect.
However, news sites in particular revised procedures to handle the emergency. CNN.com temporarily redesigned its home page for fast loading. The site, stripped of all frames and superfluous sections and images, read simply: "America Under Attack," and displayed only one photograph and a list of headlines. Much of the page was blank space, for faster loading.
"We have tripled our internal server capacity and streamlined our site to the minimum essential information," says Edna Johnson, a company representative.
CNN.com Executive Producer Mitch Gellman says the site heard from people in places as far-flung as Italy and Minnesota, offering free bandwidth to keep the site up and running.
"We were really touched by the idea that people from around the world (were offering free bandwidth)," Gellman says. "They see CNN as a public service."
To spread out traffic, CNN is also disseminating developing news over its online affiliates such as CNNfn.cnn.com, the company's financial outlet, and sports magazine site SportsIllustrated.cnn.com, Johnson says.
MSNBC spokesperson Peter Dorogoff says the news operation also went into crisis mode and implemented its "light system," stripping advertising and reducing graphics from its site to accommodate the tremendous amount of traffic. MSNBC also moved users' personalized news to a separate page because of the high volume of traffic at its main site.
Internet users from around the world flocked to bulletin boards and chat rooms, swapping missives and seeking support online. The Web quickly became a place to check on or report the status of friends and family.
A new site, the New York City Bombing Check-In Site provided an online place for New Yorkers to notify friends and family of their well-being, and for others to check for information.
At Yahoo, users set up chat groups to exchange information about the disaster.
Internet portal Lycos created an information page labeled "US Attacked: What You Can Do." The site offers a multitude of links to charities and links to victim assistance groups.
Search engine Google saved copies of popular news sites like CNN.com and NYTimes.com for Internet users who couldn't access them because of Internet traffic congestion.
Seeming quietly trivial in light of events, X10 Wireless Technology modified its pop-up add campaign by posting instead this statement: "We have suspended our service out of sympathy to the victims and families of this National tragedy. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to them."
Companies that kept offices in the World Trade Center, such as the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood posted updates for clients and family members on the well-being of staff.
Morgan Stanley's Web site posted this note: "The towers of the World Trade Center have collapsed following a series of explosions. The south tower was the headquarters for Morgan Stanley's retail businesses."
Elsewhere online, however, chatter became rants.
Usenet discussion boards on terrorism were crammed with angry postings, many urging violent reprisals. The instantaneousness of electronic communication, however, not only aided the proliferation of information. It also fostered the spread of misinformation, including rumors of a fifth hijacked airline forced down in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in Northwest Canada. That incident turned out to be unrelated, instead involving a Korea Airlines flight that was low on fuel and needed to land.
Such esoteric communications systems also demonstrate how conspiracy theorists and users with fringe political ideas can use the medium as a platform to preach their own versions of history. Some posters blamed the U.S. government for either carrying out the terrorism or purposely ignoring warning signs as a ruse to seize more civil freedoms from U.S. citizens. Others blame the entire Arab world.
However, users in other countries, including the U.K., France, and Denmark, often merely expressed sympathy for the people injured and killed, their families, and Americans in general.
The collapse of the World Trade Center destroyed a number of high-speed switches and circuits in the basement of the building. Verizon Wireless service in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas experienced the same network congestion as the companies' wired networks, says Mark Marchand, a Verizon spokesperson.
WorldCom lost 200 DS-3 circuits that run through the basement of the World Trade Center and carry commercial traffic, according to Diana Gwen, a vice president of WorldCom. But, Gowen adds, traffic was automatically routed around the damaged circuits.
WorldCom operates the global Defense Information Systems Network, handling all military communications traffic, from unclassified to secret. Defense Department command and control networks continued to function normally despite today's terrorist attack against the Pentagon, representatives say.
Sprint also reports traffic disruptions caused by the collapse of the towers on 27 DS3 circuits and switches housed in the basement.
Sprint all but evacuated its Washington office, according to spokesperson James Fisher, although the evacuation was voluntary. "We're right across the street from the FBI building," Fisher says. "No one really wants to stay here."
Broadband and voice service in the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas also continued to function but were stressed by higher volumes of traffic, Marchand adds.
Microsoft opened for business as usual, although many Seattle-area landmarks, such as the Space Needle, were closed. Many San Francisco Bay Area businesses decided to not open or send workers home, but the semiconductor industry cranked on.
Both Advanced Micro Devices and Intel remain open in their Silicon Valley headquarters.
"We have not closed down any buildings, but we have implemented tightened security measures," says John Greenagel, an AMD spokesperson. Both AMD and Intel increased security at all offices worldwide, the companies say.
Both companies also made plans to accommodate employees for situations such as school closings. San Francisco public schools were closed on Tuesday.
AMD has also instructed the AMD travel department to cancel all travel plans, keeping all employees on a wait status. "We will do whatever we can to get employees home when it is safe to do so," Greenagel says.
Neither company had experienced any major problems with communication over telephone systems or the Internet, they say. "I think some people are encountering some slight delays on the Internet, just because of the amount of traffic online right now," AMD's Greenagel says.
At least one tech industry casualty is among a death toll that could mount into the thousands.
Daniel C. Lewin, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Internet communication company Akamai Technologies, died aboard one of the American Airlines flights that crashed as part of an apparent terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
American confirms Lewin was a passenger on American Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, according to a statement from Akamai. The Boeing 767 had 81 passengers and 11 crew members on board.
(Assisting with this report were PCWorld.com contributors Liane Gouthro and Stuart Johnston, members of the IDG News Service, Adam Gaffin of Network World Fusion, and Mark Hall and Bob Brewin of Computerworld online.)