Egyptian Internet Clampdown and its Implications

News Brief – January 28, 2011

According to firms that monitor Internet activity, Egyptian authorities cut off nearly all Internet communications into and out of the country Friday.

The Internet lockdown came after a wave of popular protests, which called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down after nearly 30 years as premier.

Egyptian authorities had been trying to contain mounting protests that were in part fuelled by videos and reports broadcast over the Internet.

Renesys, a U.S. company that tracks Internet activity said that just after midnight local time on Friday, Egyptian authorities had succeeded in locking down the country’s international access points.

“Almost nobody in Egypt has Internet connectivity, and there are no workarounds,” said Jim Cowie, the company’s chief technology officer. “I’ve never seen it happen at this scale.”

“In a fundamental sense, it’s as if you rewrote the map and they are no longer a country,” said Mr. Cowie. “I never thought it would happen to a country the size and scale of Egypt.”

In most countries, the points of access to the global Internet are wide and varied. But as Egypt was relatively late in adopting the Internet, so it has fewer access points. Meaning that Egyptian authorities can shut them down, says Mr Cowie with “six, or even four phone calls.”

The fact that such a coordinated and extensive lockdown was imposed is a measure of how much of a threat the Egyptian authorities see in the Internet.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians are not the only ones to view the Internet in such terms.

Cass Sunstein, Obama’s so-called “Information Czar”, is also famous for wanting curbs imposed on the Internet. As one might expect, although Sunstein claimed this would be in the name of freedom he nonetheless urged curbs on the Internet to help curtail the spread of dangerous “conspiracy theories”.

It might be a little too late for that in Egypt but the sudden shutdown there coupled with Sunstein’s calls indicates just how the authorities now see the medium.

Even as anti-government protestors took to the streets in Egypt, one of Britain’s most senior civil servants was calling for more extensive surveillance of the Internet by Intelligence agencies.

Appearing before the Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Sir Gus O’Donnell said authorities needed “to go a bit further” to assess ongoing developments in public opinion.

“When you look at what is happening, as we speak, in Egypt,” he told the Inquiry … “the use of the Internet, the use of Twitter, the way protest movements develop, this is a different world”.

“We need to be tied in much more to that sort of world”, he said.

In other words, Sir Gus is calling for more surveillance and more control to keep the lid on potential insurrection.

Nor should it be overlooked that the Egyptian authorities first response to the protests – before they even deployed troops – was to shutdown the Internet.

All of which gives new meaning to the old line about the pen being mightier than the sword. Or to put it in more modern terms, the computer keyboard being more powerful than the gun.

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