- Associated Press - Friday, January 28, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - In its effort to silence protesters, Egypt took a step that’s rare even among authoritarian governments: It cut off the Internet across the entire country.

The nation’s four main Internet providers all went dark, and cell phone service was suspended in some areas. But the drastic move did not stop demonstrators Friday, and it could backfire by fueling anger and chaos in the streets of Cairo and beyond.

Until now, Egyptians have had nearly open access to the Web.

“This is night and day,” said Robert Faris, research director at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “They have gone from open Internet to no Internet, and that has got to be a big shock.”

Protesters are angry about the government of President Hosni Mubarak, so severing Internet and cell phone access only adds fuel to the fire, Faris said.

“This just calls into further question the government’s legitimacy,” he said. The political cost of acting so aggressively will make it “difficult for them to recover. But those are the tradeoffs.”

Many Egyptians, especially young people, have grown accustomed to using the Internet to discuss local issues, economic conditions and politics. The government has been able to censor traditional media, such as major newspapers, but small local publications and independent groups have enjoyed a vibrant presence online.

The shutoff is an “enormous regression for a country that has always had a very strong and very engaged civil society,” said Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Global Internet Freedom. The Egyptian government “just can’t cut off the entire nation forever, even if it does serve short-term goals.”

Egypt is not the first country to shut off Internet service to quell dissidence and prevent the spread of embarrassing images.

Myanmar did it in 2007. Iran disrupted Internet service in 2009 to try to quell protests over disputed elections. That same year, China, which already censors the Web, suspended international phone service and cut off the Internet in the far western Xinjiang region after deadly riots.

Iran blocked access to social sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook and slowed the Internet to a crawl, but did not cut it off completely.

“What’s notable is that Egypt has gone farther than even Iran,” Faris said. “We always thought of Egypt being a more moderate regime. In this particular instance, apparently they are not.”

Although the protests in Iran did not topple the government, they drew an outpouring of international support, much of it expressed on social networks. A video of a young woman’s death from a gunshot wound _ captured on cell phones _ become a symbol of that uprising and the government’s brutal crackdown.

In Egypt, authorities have gone after individual bloggers. But until Thursday, the government has typically permitted access to Twitter, Facebook and other sites, Faris said.

The information revolution has helped people in the Middle East organize in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. No longer do they need a formal political or social organization to protest.

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