Friday, February 25, 2011

Governing the Egyptian Internet

This piece was published today, March 25, 2011. In the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

Governing the Egyptian Internet
Dr. Warigia Bowman
February 28, 2011

In a futile effort to cling to power and quell dissent, Mubarak’s government used many avenues to restrict or control information during the January 25th Revolution, including shutting down the Internet on January 27th.  By January 29th, 91% of Egypt’s Internet networks were down.[1]  What does the Egyptian Government’s decision to shut down the Internet mean for information governance globally?

What Happened?

Multiple methods were used to take Egypt offline. To get access to the rest of the Internet, Egyptian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) need a “gateway”:  a physical link to other ISPs outside of Egypt, which ISPs lease from the Egyptian Government.[2] First, the government asked Internet Service Providers to disconnect their services or lose their licenses.[3] As the ISPs complied with the government’s order,  network addresses within Egypt became unreachable.[4] To its credit, Vodafone resisted, until, in the words of the New York Times, “it was obliged to comply.”[5] 

Had ISPs chosen not to comply, Telecom Egypt could have physically cut off connection to the network at the gateway level, which would have severely disrupted traffic in other countries.[6]   In addition the government reportedly took down Egyptian country code Domain Name Servers,[7] halting all traffic to and from local sites.[8] Finally, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)[9] were disabled, severing in-country connectivity.[10]

Impact

With the Internet down, Egypt seemed cut off from the world. The sense of disconnection was heightened because the government had shut off mobile texting and twitter, pulled Al Jazeera Arabic TV, and even stopped all mobile telephony temporarily.  Egyptian business was devastated, untold millions of dollars were lost from electronic transactions, and the banking system and stock exchange were crippled.

Shutting off the Internet is not a new tactic during civil unrest, but the scope of the Mubarak government’s effort was unprecedented. According to the Open Net Initiative, similar blockades have been imposed by Burma, Nepal and China.[11] Colonel Qaddaffi has mimiced Mubarak’s actions, creating an information blackout in Tripoli.[12]

The Mubarak government probably intended that shutting down the network would slow political agitation. Although we will never know the true impact, in fact it likely sped up the regime’s fall. In the absence of new technologies, people were forced to rely on traditional means of communication, including knocking on doors, going to the Mosque, assembling in the street, or other central gathering places. Thomas Schelling (1960) won the Nobel prize for discovering that in the absence of information, people will coordinate by selecting a focal point that seems natural, special or relevant to them. Given the protests, Tahrir was the obvious focal point. By blocking the Internet the government inadvertently fueled dissent and galvanized international support for the people of Egypt.

Next Steps

Both technological and policy solutions are urgently needed to respond to the autocratic blackouts imposed by Mubarak and Qadaffi. From a technological standpoint, activists in countries likely to experience similar problems should invest in “redundancy” as well as “distribution.” Redundancy is an information concept which emphasizes building multiple lines of communication, should one line fail. Distribution is the idea that more independent means of communication should be used, and should be distributed throughout multiple users, not centralized.

A blend of old and new information technologies is best for maintaining true connectivity. “Pen and paper” lists of staff, friends, landlines, mobile, home addresses and other key information to prevent isolation even if the Internet goes down. Further, robust and tested methods, such as FM and shortwave radio are an outstanding means to communicate with the outside world.

The Internet network is inherently not governed. Yet, each player has a valuable role. January 27th teaches us that a move away from centralization, particularly in the presence of autocratic governments, is crucial. Universities and NGOs who can afford to do so should invest in Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs). VSATs provide independent wireless link connectivity through satellite, not cable connections. VSATs can only be forced to stop operating by physically disabling them.  In addition, ISPs should secure satellite links, or find other means to create non-vulnerable gateways.[13]  ISPs must also decide at what point they choose to cooperate with government repression, and at what point they resist. January 27th suggests the market will reward those who take efforts to keep the network up.

The January 25th Revolution has powerfully demonstrated that social networks and the Internet can play a powerful role in empowering people and promoting democracy.[14] Yet, the January 27th shutdown demonstrates the fragility of access, particularly in countries with high governmental control.[15] Efforts should be made to expand Internet connectivity and computer access in rural, poor and remote areas throughout Egypt, the Middle East and Africa, so that future political movements can empower and mobilize the grassroots. Finally, activists and policy people should  demand that rights to telephony and Internet connectivity be incorporated into freedom of information guarantees.


[1]“Egypt Internet Shutdown Q& A,” ISOC Monthly Newsletter, February 2, 2011, available at [http://isoc.org/wp/newsletter?/p=3100]
[2]James Glanz and John Markoff, “Egypt Leaders Found “Off” Switch for Internet,” The New York Times, February 15, 2011.
[3]Matt Richtel, “Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service,” The New York Times, January 28, 2011,
[4]One of the only websites still active in the entire country was the AUC website.AUC owns the IP prefix 213.181.237.0/24 announced by the AS8524. This connects with RAYA Telecom and Noor Data Networks. AUC was able to maintain very limited connectivity by switching between these two service providers. See, Claudio Squarcella, Roma Tre University, “Three Case Studies on the Egyptian Disconnection,” RIPE Labs, available at [http://labs.ripe.net/Members/csquare/three-case-studies-egyptian-disconnection]
[5]Email communication with L.Jean Camp, Professor of Informatics, University of Indiana, February 2, 2011.
[6]ISPs operate at level three in this diagram, whereas Telecom Egypt controls the gateway at levels 1 and 2. See Novell Connection Primer, available at
[7]Johnson, p. 2.
[8]ISOC Newsletter, p. 2.
[9]Fahim, p. 3.
[10]Email communication with Timothy McGinnis, African Internet Infrastructure Consultant and Ambassador to the World Summit on Information Society Ambassador, February 18, 2011.
[11]ISOC Newsletter, p. 3; Richtel, page 1; Bobbie Johnson, “How Egypt Switched off the Internet,” Gigaom.com, January 28, 2011, available at [http://gigaom.com/2011/01/28/how-egypt-switched-off-the-internet/]
[12]Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Qadaffi’s Grip on the Capital Tightens as Revolt Grows,” The New York Times, February 22, 2011.
[13]Email communication with Badru Ntege, Systems Engineer, one2net, Uganda. February 16, 2011.
[14]Mohamed Abdel-Baky, Cyber-Revolution, Al Ahram Weekly, Available Online at [http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/print/2011/1034/sc30.html]
[15]Rick Ferguson, as quoted by Bobbie Johnson, p. 3.

14 comments:

  1. I liked the way you did your analysis regarding the issue under the title "impact" however there were so many other reasons for people to go out of their homes and join the masses in general streets! We can come up with a serious input to governance efforts in Egypt by incorporating what you mentioned "rights to telephony and Internet connectivity be incorporated into freedom of information guarantees" in Egypt and the whole world..

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  2. I like your 'Next Steps' section on expanding the internet connectivity.

    Regarding the Egyptian government disconnecting the internet and mobile connections, it was such a clumsy and LATE decision to take because the whole Egyptian public was already fueled and ready to take action. A smart government is one whose leadership is able to forecast early enough what will happen based on what started to happen and is currently happening. This is just in terms of forecast, but in terms of what it could have done that is another story :)

    Enjoyed your piece!

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  3. While we're talking about technological fixes, here's a concept. It's looking like democratic countries do better if the Internet is always "up." Dictatorships, oligarchies, and theocracies always want to be able to shut down the Internet whenever they don't like what's coming down the pipe to their citizens. So what we need, to advance the cause of democracy, is something like the GPS system. Space based satellites that anyone can access to get free broadband Internet and that nobody can shut down. The democratic nations of the world should just go ahead and pay to get that going. Clearly, at the moment, the idea is science fiction, but in my lifetime, lots of things that used to be science fiction, like the Internet, are now indispensable parts of the world economy.

    Henry Farkas, MD, MPH

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  4. @Henry

    In my revised version of this post, I mention the need to buy VSATs. VSATs rely on a satellite based connection to the Internet. The broadband connection is not free, but it is secure from dictators.

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  5. In the part where you talked about the impact, i liked where you were saying that the main intention of shutting the internet was to slow down the protest. But actually the day before they shut down the internet and all sort of communication people organized and planned how are they going to meet. So what Moubarak did was unrealistic, because people wanted somethiing and whether they could communicate or not they managed to find a solution: "which is to go to Tahrir square and meet with all Egyptians".

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  6. This piece is informative and lucid; I enjoyed reading every word and the “Next Steps” to a greater extent, thank you. I would also like to add that according to the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center internet users increased to 20% in 2010 which calculates more than 16.5 million internet users in Egypt and 50% of this number is represented in Greater Cairo where the revolution has emerged, Tahrir square. Therefore, can we really hypothesize that there is a direct relationship between cities with high number of internet users and uprising? But what about other cities or countries i.e. Yemen’s broadband penetration is 1% of households in 2009, informaTM- Arab media outlook.

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  7. Very nice article! I agree on the part that shutting the internet actually led the people more to go to streets and participate in the revolution to know what is happening. Doing this action with educated young people will not get any results.

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  8. @Dalia, very learned comment. Can you send me the link?

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  9. Sure, I will send the whole research report to your mail. It quantitatively explore the Arab region media habits; traditional and digital.

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  10. it was interesting how what the government did of cutting of the internet provoked more people to get out of their homes to join the protests.

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  11. Dear Warigia,

    I would like to repost this article followed by a link to your blog followed by publication on mine (http://kipsang.wordpress.com/)

    Hence this comment to ask your permission to do so.

    Looking forwaord to hearing from you!

    Kind regards,

    Kipsang.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @Kipsang. Repost away. happy you are doing so.
    You have a cool blog, can we exchange blogrolls? I can put your blog on my blogroll,and you can do the same.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I have read your full post and i think it is very effective for me as well as others. Great job buddy thanks for your post.
    telephony leased line

    ReplyDelete