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De-Nile Of Service: Can Governments Turn Off The Internet?

Topics: Technology | 1 CommentBy admin | January 28, 2011

The simple answer is “yes”, but Egypt’s unprecedented nationwide shutdown of internet access highlights a plethora of issues beyond whether or not Egyptians could watch Keyboard Cat videos on YouTube.

Want to shut down the internet?
There’s an app for that.

Imagine you woke up one morning and went to check your e-mail, and the internet was down. “Damn”, you think to yourself, “oh well, I’ll check it on my mobile phone and figure out the connection problem later”. Then you find your cell phone won’t get a connection. For many of us, we’d wonder if the world were ending. If you’ve ever left your phone somewhere in the middle of a busy day, you may know that panicked feeling, which you may or may not get over quickly, depending on your communication needs and personal psychology. Well, as you probably know by now, the entire country of Egypt woke up to that problem yesterday. No internet. No phone service. Especially as an outsider, you may think “Big deal. I never call Egypt or browse Egyptian websites anyway”. But it may not have occurred to you that even the US Embassy website was not available. Although it is now, presumably because according to this Netcraft query, they switched ISP’s today. And then of course, there’s commerce. If you know anything at all about modern business, you know that even convenience stores rely on internet connections, to process credit card purchases. Which would probably explain why the only Egyptian ISP that was still operating was NOOR Group, which not only hosts the Egyptian Stock Exchange, but also has some heavyweight global corporate clients. So how was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak able to just “flick a switch” and shut off all these services? This MSNBC piece explains in plain English that in the case of Egypt, the government owns the ISP’s that provide all the networks that make the internet the internet. So he simply had to issue an order to shut things down. Whether they did it physically, by shutting down equipment, or digitally, by instructing the systems to process traffic differently, is largely irrelevant. They effectively shut down the internet and cellular communications in the country, forcing protesters to use what we might call the “Islamic Sneakernet”. Good old-fashioned person-to-person communication, fairly effectively transmitted via mosques, as this Wired piece suggests. So could the US government do the same thing in times of civil unrest? You bet. And frankly that kind of possibility is why – although I often get flak from friends about it – I KNOW I’m not crazy for constantly ranting about the evils of agency capture and the telecoms in America. Although there was a lot of hubbub last year about Obama being handed an “internet kill switch” with the “cybersecurity act”, this was simply not true. It was flat out, unquestionably bald-face lies, wrapped in the language of the moronic political blogosphere, which even infected tech blogs like the one just linked to. But it hardly matters if Obama were handed an “internet kill switch”; he already had one, as every president has since before the internet even existed, in the form of Title VII of the Communications Act of 1934. The internet needs the telecoms, and in national emergencies, the government controls the telecoms. And it’s worthy of note that even though we don’t specifically have an internet kill switch now, people politicians like Joe Lieberman want one bad. But regardless of all these hypothetical issues, shutting down the internet in reaction to the mass unrest in Egypt has highlighted a plethora of other issues. Economically, it could be catastrophic. US markets already took a plunge Friday, and worse repercussions may be expected on Monday. The events have also highlighted the US government’s awkward stance toward Egypt; they can hardly come down hard diplomatically, when they give Egypt billions in support annually and use Egypt as a favorite location to make prisoners disappear during an extraordinary rendition. And perhaps most importantly, given the American media’s shallow coverage of what’s happening in Egypt, the internet would have been a great way to get more meaningful coverage. By the way, as that article points out, you still can get some better coverage from Al Jazeera. And finally, the fact that a country can shut down its internet like this may provide a huge boost to the satellite internet business. Because although there are other ways to skirt an internet blackout, they require a rather high nerd quotient, as the PC World piece Get Internet Access When Your Government Shuts It Down makes abundantly evident.

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  1. Posted by Internet Doomsday? There’s An App For That. | dissociatedpress.com on 02.12.11 11:41 pm

    [...] or struggling to get the barcode reader to work on their smartphone at the grocery store. The recent internet shutdown in Egypt was probably the first time that people became aware that the web could be shut down on a large [...]