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.
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."
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
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