By Joshua Ostrer
Last week, on Jan. 27, the Egyptian government did something no government has done before: they turned off the internet. In under 13 minutes, the entirety of Egypt’s 80 million internet-users were left in the dark. The Egyptian government, run by President Hosni Mubarak, owns the largest service provider in Egypt, Telecom Egypt. After shutting it down, they only had to make four phone calls, and internet and phone service were gone.
The Internet shut-down is in response to nation-wide riots, which have left over 3,000 injured and 300 dead, as reported by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on Feb. 1. In an attempt to regain control of the country, Egypt is employing the most radical form of social control over the internet to date, outdoing countries like Tunisia, which supposedly spied on its populace via Facebook, and China, which uses very strict content filtering.
Filtering isn’t always effective, and it is expensive and complicated to implement well, so Egypt seems to be resorting to Cuba’s policy, which sacrifices being an information society in favor of greater control over its citizens. It is the classic authoritarian communication dilemma, and Mubarak is attempting to regain control.
Even though Egypt is not solely reliant on the internet for its economy, shutting down all internet access will have a massive effect on their economy. Given the effects, it would appear that the Mubarak government is truely desperate and willing to make serious sacrifices in order to retain their grasp on power.
The Egyptian internet shutdown also has implications far beyond its own borders. In actuality, “the majority of internet connectivity between Europe and Asia actually passes through Egypt.” Additionally, many Gulf States’ economies rely on Egyptian connectivity to the world market. Given the potential economic effects, the shutdown’s ramifications are being compared to the closure of the Suez Canal.
As of the Jan. 29, cell phone service is beginning to return, as Blackberry users in major cities are seeing their telephone service restored. However, the internet remains down, except for a very small provider, ‘Noor Group’ which appears to be operating solely for economic reasons, providing access to the Egyptian Stock Exchange.
All of this begs to ask the question: can it happen here in the United States? Politicians such as Joe Lieberman have advocated the ‘Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act’ (PCNAA), which would allow the government to cut access to the entire internet in the case of a ‘Cybersecurity Emergency.’
It would be difficult to do here, but Egypt has proven the possiblity of taking an entire nation offline.