- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egyptians continued to use the Web and social-networking tools to organize protests and communicate with the outside world over the weekend, despite the unprecedented efforts of the government to shut down the country’s Internet and curtail cell-phone service.

The Web shutdown, described by scholars as unique in the history of the Internet, affected four of the country’s five Internet service providers (ISPs), who normally handle about 90 percent of the country’s Web traffic, according to BGP Monitor, a website that watches developments in international Internet traffic.

Social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook reported a huge falloff of traffic from Egypt after the shutdown.

“We saw a drop in Egyptian traffic on Thursday and are now seeing only minimal traffic from Egypt,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes told The Washington Times in an e-mail.

“Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community,” Mr. Noyes said. “It is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet.”

One private ISP, Noor, which provides Internet services for Egypt’s stock exchange, appeared unaffected by the shutdown, which happened in the first few minutes of Friday. It was unclear why Noor appeared to have been spared, but the Internet shutdown was accompanied by a severe curtailment of voice and messaging service on Egypt’s cell-phone network.

Journalist Issandr El Amrani, who blogs at the Arabist, wrote over the weekend, citing unnamed telecom industry sources, that mobile-phone companies “have been ordered by the authorities to shut down SMS [text messaging] services … and Blackberry messaging in Cairo and perhaps elsewhere in Egypt.”

“All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas,” said Vodafone Egypt in a press statement. “Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it.”

Despite the shutdown, some protesters continued to post updates to Twitter and to their blog sites — a continued connectivity that technical specialists said might be enabled in a number of different ways.

Possible creative solutions discussed on Web forums and technical chat rooms included using land lines to dial up access numbers provided by foreign ISPs, and urging those using Noor or other still-active connections to set up open wireless networks to enable anyone within range to “piggyback” their Internet access.

Even traditional media were making use of Twitter over the weekend. After the government shut down the Arabic news service Al Jazeera on Sunday, the station’s correspondents posted news updates to the micro-blogging site, along with instructions on alternative ways to access their output.

The Web shutdown stoked fears about its longer-term impact — and not just on the ability of protesters to communicate.

“What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80 million people from the Internet?” John Cowie of the Internet intelligence firm Renesys wrote on the company’s blog. “What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets? This has never happened before, and the unknowns are piling up.”

Mr. Cowie predicted that the fallout would hurt the Egyptian economy, as well as the credibility of the government and those firms that cooperated with it.

“I predict that Egypt’s ‘kill switch’ experiment will serve as a cautionary tale: The economic and reputational costs of the shutdown far exceed the benefits of regaining total information control,” he said.

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