sábado, 29 de enero de 2011
Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service
Autocratic governments often limit phone and Internet access in tense times. But the Internet has never faced anything like what happened in Egypt on Friday, when the government of a country with 80 million people and a modernizing economy cut off nearly all access to the network and shut down cellphone service. The shutdown caused a 90 percent drop in data traffic to and from Egypt, crippling an important communications tool used by antigovernment protesters and their supporters to organize and to spread their message.
Vodafone, a cellphone provider based in London with 28 million subscribers in Egypt, said in a statement on its Web site that “all mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas.” The company said it was “obliged to comply” with the order.
Egypt, to an unprecedented extent, pulled itself off the grid.
“In a fundamental sense, it’s as if you rewrote the map and they are no longer a country,” said Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company based in New Hampshire that tracks Internet traffic.
“Almost nobody in Egypt has Internet connectivity,” Mr. Cowie added. “I’ve never seen it happen at this scale.”
In the Internet era, governments have found many ways to control the flow of information — or at least to try to do so — by interfering with digital communications or limiting them.
Few governments have cut off access entirely; Myanmar did so in 2007, as did Nepal two years earlier. But at least 40 countries filter specific Internet sites or services, as China does by prohibiting access to some foreign news sources, said Prof. Ronald Deibert, a political scientist and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics.
“It’s almost become de rigueur during events like this — elections or political demonstrations — to tamper with the Internet,” Professor Deibert said. But he added that the shutdown in Egypt was “unprecedented in scope and scale.”
Like other groups that track Internet traffic, Professor Deibert’s organization found that Internet access in Egypt dropped off sharply around 12:30 a.m. Friday in Cairo, or about 5:30 p.m. Thursday New York time.
Some Internet traffic remained flowing on Friday, allowing access to and from the country’s stock exchange and some government agencies, according to researchers.
A Facebook spokesman, Andrew Noyes, said the company had seen a drop in traffic from Egypt on Thursday and only minimal traffic on Friday. “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,” he said in a statement.
Online activists inside and outside the country passed along information about how to work around the shutdown, like using dial-up Internet connections in other countries.
Professor Deibert said that a government that chooses to tamper with the Internet — let alone shut it off — incurs potentially serious diplomatic, political and economic costs. Citizens and businesses, he noted, have become increasingly dependent on Internet communication and transactions, and doubtless are putting pressure on the Egyptian government to relent.
Curiously, Internet experts said, the ease with which Egypt shut down communications networks may be a result of its historical lack of repressiveness when it comes to telecommunications access.
Bill Woodcock, research director of the Packet Clearing House, a company that supports and studies Internet infrastructure around the world, said the Egyptian government had led the way in promoting the development of the Internet within the country.
As a result, he said, the companies that provide Internet service have had little reason to expect a shutdown, and so did not prepare alternative communications channels or workarounds.
By contrast, Mr. Woodcock said, Internet service providers in places like Cambodia have a much more tense relationship with the government and have readied themselves for potential tampering.
The shutdown in Egypt “is a tragedy, and it is a colossal mistake on the part of a government that has historically been way out in front in terms of the Internet,” he said. “It’s been a liberal vanguard in a region that is otherwise very conservative.”
Egypt has only a handful of major Internet access providers, so it would take just a few phone calls to get them to stop the flow of traffic. That would not be possible in countries with more complex networks.
The shutdown may actually be creating more unrest, said Prof. Mohammed el-Nawawy of the communications department at Queens University of Charlotte. Professor el-Nawawy, a native of Egypt who has been studying its blogging culture, said he had been talking by land line to activists in the country who told him that people who might have otherwise expressed their frustration on blogs or Facebook were heading outside instead.
“The government has made a big mistake taking away the option at people’s fingertips,” he said. “They’re taking their frustration to the streets.”
He added: “Blogs are not important right now. Things have moved beyond that point.”
Miguel Helft contributed reporting.