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updated 3/14/2011 2:14:10 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:14:10

Egyptian Internet users scrambled to get back online Friday (Jan. 28) after the country’s government shut down online access nationwide early in the morning in anticipation of a huge day of protest.

Egypt’s five major Internet service providers (ISPs) went offline at about 12:30 a.m. local time, or 5:30 p.m. EST Thursday. Cell-phone service was also mostly shut down.

"We urge the Egyptian government ... to reverse the unprecedented steps to cut off communications," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a televised statement Friday afternoon.

"Very concerned about violence in Egypt - government must respect the rights of the Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet," tweeted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at about the same time.

One report flew around Twitter midday Friday that a French company was offering anonymous dial-up access via a French phone number; another listed DSL lines that were still working.

" Tip fr @EgyptFreedomNow Dial-up ISP working. DSL still working in #Egypt, Try Dial-up 0777 7770 & 0777 7000 #Jan25," read a tweet from @telecomix, affiliated with a free-Internet organization.   Another read " An anonymous dialup service provided by http://www.fdn.fr on +33172890150 login toto password toto #JAN25 #Egypte RT plz to relay INFO".

Telecomix reported later Friday that ham radio operators in Europe had managed to communicate in Morse code with their Egyptian counterparts.

The loosely organized "hacktivist" group Anonymous got similarly creative, mounting a campaign Friday afternoon to skip the Internet altogether and simply fax Egyptian schools and hotels using free online services. Recommended documents to fax included leaked State Department cables detailing Egyptian police torture and government repression of bloggers.

“We stand up for the little guy as well as fighting the government,” an Anonymous source told Forbes magazine blogger Andy Greenberg. “We believe the people need to see the truth, which is why we’re faxing locations in Egypt (especially schools) with copies of a relevant WikiLeaks cable; due to the majority of Egyptian Internet being down, the public cannot access this vital information.”

Egypt's disappearance into an Internet black hole was sudden and unexpected.

"At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table," explained a posting on a blog maintained by a New Hampshire-based Internet consulting firm. "Approximately 3,500 individual BGP [border gateway protocol] routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide."

A later analysis by Renesys showed that Egypt's major ISPs switched off, one by one, within minutes of each other.

"[T]his sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air," commented author and Renesys Chief Technology Officer James Cowie.

Only Internet service provided by Noor Group, associated with Telecom Italia, was officially left on in Egypt, possibly to keep the country's stock exchange online.

Yet the outage was not complete.  Al-Masry al-Youm, an independent newspaper, kept its website online and constantly updated.

Tweets associated with Anonymous, which had organized directed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Egyptian government sites Wednesday, broadcast Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that Egyptians could access to get around blocked Domain Name System (DNS) servers: “@wikileaks_pp: DNS -> 8.8.8.8 / Twitter-> "128.242.240.52" Facebook-> "69.63.189.34" Google-> "72.14.204.99" #Egypt#OpEgypt"

The Anonymous website AnonNews also posted a manifesto addressed to the "governments of the world."

"We call upon you to take action and show the world that you are on the side of the people and their fight for freedom and democracy," it read in part. "Neutrality amounts to complicity as totalitarian regimes are showing their contempt for the citizens' right to protest. ... We will support people who strive for freedom of speech, assembly and communication - the civil rights essential for the people to forge their own futures."

During protests in Egypt Wednesday, the authorities shut off cell-phone service in the area of a major square in Cairo where demonstrators had massed.  Local residents responded by opening up their Wi-Fi networks to the crowd.

The government took no such chances Friday, shutting off almost all means of digital communication.

"All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Under Egyptian legislation, the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply," said the British company Vodafone, one of Egypt's two major cellular providers, in a statement repeated by Reuters.

It was unclear whether the policy extended to satellite television, because anyone with a dish could watch Al Jazeera's uncensored coverage of the massive and violent protests taking place across the country.

According to the CIA World Facebook, Egypt, with a population of 80 million, has 10 million landline telephones, 55 million cell phones and 20 million Internet users.

Removing an entire country from the Internet to quell political turmoil is a rare event.  In Egypt's case, it was relatively easy to do because of the small number of ISPs; such a move would be more difficult in the U.S., said one expert.

"It can't happen here," Cowie of Renesys told Al Jazeera. "How many people would you have to call to shut down the U.S. Internet? Hundreds, thousands maybe? We have enough Internet here that we can have our own Internet. If you cut it off, that leads to a philosophical question: Who got cut off from the Internet, us or the rest of the world?"

However, the creation of an Internet "kill switch" at the disposition of the American president is an idea that has gained traction in Congress. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), both political moderates, introduced such legislation last summer.  It may reappear this year in a form that eliminates judicial review, writes CNET's Declan McCullagh.

During the protests in Tunisia that eventually brought down the government two weeks ago, the authorities did not come close to shutting down Internet access.

Instead, they tried selectively blocking Twitter and Facebook, but locals used proxy servers to get through the blocks, and Facebook itself rerouted communications and set up identity-challenge tests to foil the secret police.

Chinese citizens use proxy servers to get around the "Great Firewall of China," the government-run system of censorship that blocks foreign Web sites containing information about the Tibetan independence movement or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for example.

However, the Egyptian government was clearly taking no chances and decided to simply uplug the Internet altogether.

"There's no way around this with a proxy," Cowie told Al Jazeera. "There is literally no route. It's as if the entire country disappeared. You can tell I'm still kind of stunned."

One privacy advocate, however, cautioned that Internet access can be dangerous for political dissidents.

"[I]t is absolutely critical that Egyptian protesters take precautions when communicating online," wrote Electronic Frontier Foundation International Activist (sic) Eva Galperin. "To reiterate, social networking tools have given activists a powerful voice, which can be heard well beyond Egypt, but activists should also remember that the Egyptian government could use these same tools to identify and retaliate against them."

Egypt has a remarkably free press for the Arab world, but has beaten, arrested and imprisoned politically troublesome bloggers for much of the past decade.


 

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