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“The Egyptian government understood that very quickly in moving yesterday to put limits on social media,” Shibley Telhami, professor of international relations at the University of Maryland, said Friday. “Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t.”

Although relatively few Egyptian homes have Internet access, cybercafes and cell phones are prevalent. Mobile phones outnumber fixed phone lines, as is the case in many developing countries.

At the end of 2010, an estimated 80 percent of Egyptians had a cell phone, according to research firm Ovum. About a quarter had access to the Internet as of 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations.

So it was notable that the government shut down not just Internet connections but also mobile service. Unable to use their cell phones, some people muttered angrily about what the cutoff would mean for reaching emergency services. As of Friday, at least eight people had died in the protests.

Going from open Internet to no Internet is more shocking to people than losing it piece by piece, or not having access to it in the first place, as is the case in Cuba and North Korea.

“One of the things China is particularly good at is offering alternatives to media they are blocking,” Faris said. “For most Chinese Internet users, that’s enough. They are probably fine with that.”

That said, shutting down Internet connections in a country with limited infrastructure, like Egypt, is not technically complicated. If an Internet service provider turns off its “routers” _ powerful computers that relay Internet data _ then traffic is halted. Egypt has just five major providers, according to Renesys Corp.

When Iran’s protests erupted in 2009, the state started filtering the country’s Internet connections, blocking some types of communications and slowing the overall network.

By shutting down nearly all Internet connections, the Egyptian government is wielding a much blunter instrument, possibly because it was caught by surprise and did not have time to put an elaborate filtering system in place. And they might have acted too late.

“People protested before there was Internet, and people protest when there is no Internet,” Faris said. “A lot of the organization that went on online has already occurred.”


Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein in Cairo, Peter Svensson in New York, Jessica Mintz in Seattle and Joelle Tessler in Washington contributed to this story.