29 January 2011

Internet cutoff in Egypt; implications re a "kill switch" for an American president

Information from various sources re the blocking of internet service in Egypt.   First, from the New York Times:
Autocratic governments often limit phone and Internet access in tense times. But the Internet has never faced anything like what happened in Egypt on Friday, when the government of a country with 80 million people and a modernizing economy cut off nearly all access to the network and shut down cellphone service.

The shutdown caused a 90 percent drop in data traffic to and from Egypt, crippling an important communications tool used by antigovernment protesters and their supporters to organize and to spread their message...

Professor Deibert said that a government that chooses to tamper with the Internet — let alone shut it off — incurs potentially serious diplomatic, political and economic costs. Citizens and businesses, he noted, have become increasingly dependent on Internet communication and transactions, and doubtless are putting pressure on the Egyptian government to relent...

Egypt has only a handful of major Internet access providers, so it would take just a few phone calls to get them to stop the flow of traffic. That would not be possible in countries with more complex networks.
These observations from the BBC:
Earlier this week, Egyptians had reported being unable to access social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. At the time the Egyptian government denied it was behind the block, saying it supported free speech.

Many of the protesters were able to get round those restrictions by using smartphone apps - which had not been blocked - to access those sites. Others used proxy servers - which divert web traffic to its destination via sites that haven't been blocked.
And from Scientific American:
The shutdown does not appear to be a spontaneous event, given that the Telecom Egypt, Raya, Link Egypt, Etisalat Misr and Internet Egypt ISPs each shut down its part of Egypt's Internet in sequence an average of about three minutes apart, according to Manchester, N.H.-based network security firm Renesys Corp. This sequencing indicates that each of the ISPs may have received a phone call telling them to drop Internet access to their subscribers, as opposed to an automated system that kicked in to take down all of the providers at once... If this analysis is correct, it indicates a level of governmental Internet control unseen to this point, not even in China, Iran and Tunisia...

Typically what happens in countries like Tunisia or Iran or China is people exert very surgical control over information, they will block particular domain names, or they'll block particular Web sites or particular small networks that host content that they don't like. When Iran had its problems after its elections, they slowed down their Internet so they could use it more effectively to control protestors but they didn't take it down...

If you look at a complex system such as those in the United States or Canada, you might ask, "How many phone calls would I have to make to shut it down?" It probably wouldn't be possible. Most of the people you would call operate independent of the government and wouldn't even listen to you. In a place like Egypt there's a lot less diversity in that ecosystem. There were just a few key providers, they're all licensed by the government. They have to do what the government says...

There is [currently] no standing legal authority to be exercised and no kill switch [in the United States]... If the laws were changed so that there were a clear-cut legal authority and a plan to control the Internet, then anything is possible. But I certainly don't think that the industry in most countries on Earth would stand to have that kind of power dangled over their heads. It would do incredible violence to the companies economically, and it would do even greater economic violence to the country.
For further discussion on this topic, see the companion piece at Scientific American entitled "Conspiracy theory: Could the president take over the Internet?"

PC World has a relevant post entitled "Get Internet Access When Your Government Shuts It Down".

And finally for now, an observation at Al Jazeera that searches for "Egypt" are not trending in China because the word has been blocked there.

Image via The Daily What.


  1. W O W . . . "And finally for now, an observation at Al Jazeera that searches for "Egypt" are not trending in China because the word has been blocked there." . . . How easily we forget certain things. Thanks for all the reminders.

  2. I'm sitting in China right now and, having just read this about Al Jazeera's report, tested it--I Googled "Egypt" and came up immediately with millions of choices of articles, including news from 28 minutes ago. If this was ever true, it isn't now.

  3. I'm impressed that you're able to read this blog in PRC. China is the biggest hole in my coverage; Shanghai is virtually the only city that has readers of TYWKIWDBI, and that at a rate of only about one/day. (Beijing only 2/month !)

  4. I'm actually in Shanghai--I read your blog two or three times a week, sometimes only once a week, but that's really a matter of how much grading or planning for class I have to do on any given evening (I teach at the Shanghai American School). I can usually get it to open, but it can be extremely slow! Once I do sit down and manage to open it up, though, I keep going until I hit where I left off--I think it's a wonderfully interesting site.


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