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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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