Tech-savvy Egyptians are finding ways to skirt the Egyptian government's decision to pull the plug on the country's Internet connection, but most of the nation's 80 million residents and businesses remain in the dark after five days. Experts say the situation shows how vulnerable online communications still are even today.
Social media and sites like Facebook have been invaluable to organizers seeking to topple the Mubarak government, and opponents have taken to the streets of Cairo in mass protests. But Facebook, emails and Twitter accounts pretty much stopped last Friday, when Egypt's Internet traffic plunged to near zero.
Government officials did it by locking out fiber optic cables that connect Egypt to the rest of the world via the Suez Canal and underneath the Mediterranean Sea, according to Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project, a Walpole, Mass., group that provides censorship-busting software.
"We're still trying to figure out what's going on," Lewman told Discovery News. "They shut off all the routing protocols so nobody knows where they are or how to get them."
The Geneva-based Internet Society estimates that 90 percent of Egypt's Internet traffic is down. French and Swiss-based telephone companies are providing Egyptians some Internet service though old-fashioned telephone dial-up modems, technology that certainly isn't fast but does provide a link to the outside world.
The problem is that some of these telephone calls may be routed through government channels, and opponents say that means they could be recorded.
Lewman said that a few days prior to the crackdown, he saw a big spike in Egyptians downloading Tor Project's software, which allows users to encrypt their messages and have them distributed through servers provided by volunteers across the world. The project has also been active in Iran and China in recent years.
There is one remaining ISP in Egypt, known as Noor, and Lewman says sources in Egypt tell him it provides data for the Egyptian stock exchange and has therefore been allowed to remain operational, even though the exchange has been shut down for three straight days.
"The world outside Egypt has no visibility over the intentions of the Egyptian government," said Leslie Daigle, chief Internet technology officer at the Internet Society in an email. "Once the routers are back online, we anticipate some ongoing side effects as the routing system rebuilds connections to and through whatever Egyptian networks are brought online."
Western technology advocates and human rights groups are jury-rigging other sorts of go-rounds in Egypt, including satellite-based Wi-Fi systems that may provide Internet to some people.
The Internet Society's Daigle says that other nations that lack a diversity of networking infrastructure and ownership are also vulnerable to this kind of shutdown. Residents of Nepal and Iran have felt crippling blows in the past few years, but Egypt is the first country to experience a complete shutdown.
As for what's next, that may depend on the fate of Egypt's president -- and perhaps the business class, which is likely losing billions of dollars in lost trade with the rest of the planet. Mobile telephone communications have also been crippled by the government.
As a result, ships carrying Egyptian wheat, grapes or textiles bound for Europe or the United States are out of contact with their owners in Cairo, as are trucks delivering shoes and wine to neighbors in North Africa.
"(Government officials) can keep (the Internet) down until their industries start saying look, I need to do business and pay bills," Lewman said. "That's when pressure will come."