How the Egyptian Government Turned Off the Internet

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It seems the stuff of fantasy, or a really bad techno-thriller from the mid-90s: an embattled government turning off the Internet in an attempt to silence pro-democracy protesters. But that's exactly what happened in Egypt yesterday at 22:34 GMT when the country's four major Internet providers abruptly cut off web access to nearly 80 million customers. The move came days after the government blocked access to social networking websites, including Twitter and Facebook. How was the complete shutdown achieved, and what are the larger implications of the move? A variety of voices weighed in.

  • No Precedent  James Cowie, head technology officer at Internet monitoring firm Renseys, says the blackout is "unprecedented in Internet history." In the blink of an eye, "every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world." Governments have used "modest Internet manipulation" to quash protests in the past, but no state has ever "wiped their country from the global map" the way Egypt did. "What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80,000,000 people from the Internet?" Cowie wonders. "What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets?"
  • Easy To Do  Denying Internet access to millions of people is easier than one might think, writes Jordan Robertson of the Associated Press. In countries with a "centralized government and a relatively small number of fiber-optic cables and other ways for the Internet to get piped in--the companies that own the technologies are typically under strict licenses from the government," Robertson explains. If preventing organized protest is the goal, just "blocking certain sites--like Twitter or Facebook--where protesters are coordinating demonstrations" is less effective than pulling the plug entirely. "When there's no Internet at all," reasons Robertson, "proxies can't work and online communication grinds to a halt."
  • Startling  The blackout demonstrates the limits of social networking sites as an organizational tool for political protesters, argues Reuters' Georgina Prodhan. It remains easy for a state to "isolate its people when telecoms providers are few and compliant." Twitter and Facebook "can be blocked simply by targeting their IP addresses, since they are centralised on a single site--as witnessed in Iran and Tunisia. When measuring the "resilience of the Internet in any particular country," Prodhan says the clearest indicator is the "diversity of its international providers, the routes in an out of a country.
  • Shows What the Government Is Really Up To  By keeping 83 routes open for the Noor Group--including the address that leads to the Egyptian Stock Exchange--the Egyptian government demonstrated shocking ruthlessness, writes The Financial Times' Joseph Cotterill. "You'd really have to ask what the hell you’re doing investing in this country--its banks, its telecoms, and its transport infrastructure--if security forces can block it all off at a moment’s notice," he says. "You're investing upon Pharaoh's terms. That's why keeping the exchange site open is astonishing--it just makes the charade transparent."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.