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Peering into Egypt's Internet Black Hole

As events continue to unfold on the streets of Cairo and throughout Egypt, I spoke with Jillian York, project coordinator for the OpenNet Initiative at Harvard's Berkman Center and writer on Middle Eastern politics and the Internet for Global Voices and others, about the implications of Egypt's nationwide Internet shutdown

JK: Can you give me a sense of the sequence of events last night as the Internet began going down in Egypt?

JY: I was online online chatting with an Egyptian friend who lives outside of Egypt at around last night. At around 1 a.m. [Egypt time], he pinged me and said that Internet had been cut off entirely. Then shortly after that he wrote that there was one ISP that was still up.

That still seems to be the case now. One ISP, Noor,  is still accessible, but it looks like very few of the people who were tweeting or posting online have access to that. Looking at the folks on Twitter that we know have been posting, we only have about five people who are still connected, that I'm aware of. 

JK: Is this an unprecedented move? Has a country ever been removed from the Internet in this way before. 

JY: Burma was one example. Burma's military shut down the Internet on Sept. 29, 2007, [during the nationwide monks' protests against the country's military regime,]. That was the first time that anything like this had ever happened.  

The other example was Xinjiang Province in China in Summer, 2009.  [The Chinese government did not fully restore the region's Internet service until May, 2010.] 

JK: When the government blocked access to Twitter a couple of days ago, there were a number of ways people were getting around it using third-party applications. Is there any way to circumvent this shutdown?

JY: Dial-up is still working. Jacob Applebaum, [a U.S. computer-security researcher assosiated with WikiLeaks] has been Tweeting the number for a dial-up connection that people can get to through a French ISP.

A lot of the international community is trying to help.There's even a Twitter account called Jan 25 Voices that is literally reporting via Twitter on phone calls back to Egypt. But in terms of actual connectivity, it's just dial-up and this one ISP.

JK: I read your piece a couple of days ago on how the demonstrators are using social media. Has the black-out changed your views?

JY:  You can say,  "Wow, it's a 'Facebook revolution' or a 'Twitter revolution', but as soon as these are cut off, it will be interesting to see what the success of this is without social media. It's early to judge, but from what we've been seeing, it seems that people are still out there and still organizing despite this. They definitely seemed prepared for what happens when the Internet gets shut off.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

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Dispatch from Cairo under communications blackout

The following dispatch from Cairo-based Reuters producer Maryam Ishani was sent in the early hours of this morning as disruptions to Egypt's Internet service were starting to take effect. Internet and mobile-phone service has since been cut off entirely. Special thanks to FP alum Jared Mondschein for relaying the message:  

Going into the fourth day of protests, Egypt is not letting up and neither has the brutal crackdown on civilians on Friday. The death toll has climbed to five, and clashes in the northern city of Suez have gripped the anxiety of the nation, as the army moves in. The government intermittently disrupted Internet and phone services in the past few days, but has taken the dramatic step of cutting off Internet broadly at midnight on Friday.

It was a revolution that while not unexpected has caught even the North African nation by surprise. Still, government-controlled national papers largely ignore the estimated 20,000 protesters on the streets of cities like Cairo attempting to affirm both the regime's and the United States' premise that Egypt is stable and the protests will fizzle into the ether of Egypt's 30-year frustration with President Hosni Mubarak.

Interior Minister Habib al-Adli has dismissed the demonstrations. "Egypt's system is not marginal or frail. We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations even if numbered in the thousands," he said on Wednesday.

The U.S. has called the crisis as a great opportunity for reform while asking for the protection of freedom of speech.

In addition to reports of reporters for Reuters and Al-Ahram, a national daily, being detained and beaten, CNN's Ben Wedeman and Al Jazeera English's Adam Makary on Thursday reported their challenges over communication. Wedeman wrote on Twitter, "No internet, no SMS, what is next? Mobile phones and land lines? So much for stability."

Makary writes, "Already having trouble getting a hold of ppl, this is ridiculous. Emergency law at its best…"

Social networking sites are keeping the momentum going internally and abroad. Until now, activists had been using sites like Facebook and Twitter to stay connected and pass messages about the location of police, blockades, and the status of communication services.

Street activists passed along galvanizing video of protesters physically blocking police trucks a la Tiananmen Square and disrupting water cannons.

More advanced efforts like the Egyptian Front to Defend Protesters (EDFP) have used SMS and Twitter to pass important emergency numbers, locate detained demonstrators, and dispatch legal aid.

The over 3,500 followers of popular Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, whose real name is Mahmoud Salem, followed his lead to the protests around Cairo and monitored his well-being. One of his last messages before the Internet was shut down was apropos: "This is becoming the region first telecommunication civil war. Our internet & smart phones are weapons they won't allow us to have."

Social media advocates are encouraged by the effect. Egyptian-American journalist and social media expert Moustafa Ayad has been conducting social media training through USAID-funded social media workshops in Iraq for years. Participants in his workshop in Erbil on Thursday spoke to Sand Monkey and other online activists via Skype, asking questions about their progress and challenges. Later, Ayad wrote on Twitter on behalf of his deceased father, "I need to be on the streets of Cairo for Mahmoud Ayad."

But since after midnight on Friday, the networks are only flickering now, mostly with messages by Egyptians abroad, attempting to tweet on behalf of Egyptians at home. An Internet blackout has fallen on Egypt.

Activists are turning to their parent's generation now, for coordination and communication tips from the pre-Internet age.

More anxiously, reports from activists before the blackout mentioned eerie calm in major squares and the army moving in on Suez, where the clashes have been most severe. They plan to hold down major sites and buckle down with supplies and high spirits.

The usually bustling lobby of the office of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo's Manial neighborhood has fallen silent too, with reports circulating on the streets that upwards of 350 members have been arrested throughout the country.

Going into Friday morning prayers, a nation with over 60 million Muslims will be congregated for the first time since the clashes began. With opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei's return to Egypt amid the crisis on Thursday, the weekend is expected to draw even bigger crowds after Friday prayers.

After suffering the second-biggest one-day fall of the nation's stock index in its history, Mubarak is scrambling to get the silence the protests.

Human rights observers worry, with Egypt's record of abuses in broad daylight, what happens when the lights go out? 

Twitter user @tomgara wrote after midnight on Friday ominously: "Frightening watching in the last hour most of the Egyptians on my instant messenger suddenly dropping offline."

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images