Large parts of the Internet essentially went dark about midnight Egypt time after the government of President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally of Washington, ordered service providers and cell phone companies to shut down.
"Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it," Vodafone, one of the largest cell phone carriers, in Egypt, said in a statement.
While it looks like Egypt has been cut off — attempts to get to pretty much any Web site in Egypt are unsuccessful, and Twitter.com is unavailable inside the country — protesters and sympathizers have been able to get their message out through a variety of means because "what the government does is very effective for stopping the most basic users, meaning average users, the folks who probably aren't Twitter users," says Philip N. Howard, director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington and author of "The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam."
"Most of the folks who are tweeting are kind of the digital elite who can set up proxy servers and Twitter clients and get their message out," he says. "It only takes a few thousand of those folks to feed the rest of us news about what's going on."
Here's the text of our full conversation with Howard:
Why would the government "shut off" the Internet?
It's clear that in today's digital media world, the best thing a dictator can do to manage a crisis is try to shut off digital networks. Mobile phone networks and digital networks are what savvy students and civil society leaders use to spread their message.
Sometimes that message is political; sometimes it's coordinating the logistics — say, "today's protests are at the corner of such and such." That's much easier now because of Facebook and Twitter.
It's also a pretty blunt instrument. Dictators can tax newspaper or tax ink or shut off the power to TV or radio stations.
How would it go about cutting off access?
For mobile phone networks, the thing to do is shut off cell phone towers. Authoritarian regimes are usually slower and more clumsy than cell phone[-using] activists. So when you shut off cell phone towers, this has the effect of pushing traffic to other cell phone towers. This is what happened in Iran in 2009.
Cairo's a global city, so there's a lot of people with international mobile phones and Skype connections, so shutting down the cell phone towers doesn't always work well.
The second way is to shut down Internet exchange points. There's going to be a couple of hotels that have good security and are air-conditioned [housing those exchanges], and the government would send in some folks to turn the power off. That doesn't always go well, because if one node goes out, there are other nodes. For example, people are uploading videos to Israel through Europe. It slows down the traffic, but it doesn't stop it.
What factors does the government have to balance in deciding whether the tactical advantage of cutting off access is worth the public relations damage of being seen as interfering with the Internet?
I don't think the regime is worried about whether the nation's computer users will be upset. I think they're mostly worried about the communications between families and friends among the citizens of Cairo. Digital networks are ultimately social networks. The real threat to the regime is people will take pictures of the police beating their brothers and sisters, and the regime can't respond well to Facebook images of the police shooting rubber bullets into a crowd — there is no regime response for those images that go out over trusted networks.
If this was simply the Muslim Brotherhood or some union leaders bringing out their members, that would require a different kind of strategy. This is about social networks that are beyond the reach of Mubarak.
What the government does is very effective for stopping the most basic users, meaning average users, the folks who probably aren't Twitter users — this is the older generation. It's not a very good strategy. Most of the folks who are tweeting are kind of the digital elite who can set up proxy servers and Twitter clients and get their message out.
It only takes a few thousand of those folks to feed the rest of us news about what's going on. Definitely around the American University of Cairo, theres a pretty savvy student population. Next to Iran, Egypt has the largest blogging community in the region. The regime doesn't seme to win the information war very well.
What do you think will happen when the country goes back online?
I think we'll see a lot of documentary evidence about how tough the regime response has been over the last 24 hours. Just because the connections are down does not stop people from capturing what's going on in the Cairo streets with their mobile phone cameras. Mubarak's not going to be able to keep the Internet off for long because it will affect the economy.
In today's connected, mobilized world, you can't shut the Internet off for more than a few hours. Shutting the Internet off affects the security services and the economy, so it's sort of a scattershot approach — the state hurts itself, too.
What are the ramifications for the larger region?
The wider question is what's going to happen in Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria. These are other countries where digital networks have drawn out large networks of non-militant protesters. They're just tired of authoritarianism by guys who have had 25 years of rule. This is really about throwing the bums out.
The entrepreneurs in Tunis, Cairo and Beirut who just want to run a fruit cart of their own can't run their basic business. There's more of a fighting for their livelihood.
For the U.S., they're dictators, but they're on our side, so I think the State Department is struggling between whether to support a popular uprising or whether to support a strongman who's been on our side for 25, 30 years.
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