||01-29-2011 07:14 PM
Egypt shuts down internet, cellphone services
Egypt Shuts Down Internet, Cellphone Services - WSJ.com
In the face of mounting political unrest, Egypt took the unprecedented step of severing all Internet connections and shutting down its cellphone services—with the cooperation of international firms.
Egyptian authorities asked mobile operators to "turn down the network totally," said Vittorio Colao, chief executive of U.K.-based Vodafone Group PLC, which owns 55% of Egypt's largest carrier, Vodafone Egypt.
Mr. Colao, speaking Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said the request was legitimate under Egyptian law, but he hoped the government would reverse course soon.
A succession of rallies and demonstrations, in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria have been inspired directly by the popular outpouring of anger that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. See how these uprising progressed.
Many of the mobile operators in Egypt, including Vodafone, rely on Telecom Egypt, the incumbent national fixed-line provider, to carry parts of their service. Telecom Egypt is majority owned by the government.
Egypt has dozens of Internet providers, but they rely primarily on five large carriers, including Telecom Egypt, for Internet connectivity.
Starting at 10:12 p.m. local time on Thursday night, Telecom Egypt went dark, followed by the four remaining main carriers over the next 13 minutes, said Jim Cowie, chief technology officer of Renesys Corp., a network security firm in Manchester, N.H. By 10:25 p.m., the country no longer existed on the Internet, he said.
Other countries attempting to undermine or contain political uprisings in recent years—from Myanmar in 2007 to Iran and China in 2009—have also clamped down on Internet access and cellphone use.
But Egypt's crackdown appears unique in both scale and synchronization, particularly for a country with such an advanced infrastructure with so many providers, according to Internet security experts.
"What's shocking about this is that they didn't just take down a certain domain name or block a website—they took the whole Internet down," said Mr. Cowie.
France Telecom SA, which operates a venture in Egypt with its local partner Orascom Telecom, said Egyptian authorities "had taken measures" to cut off its mobile and Internet services in the country, provided through its subsidiary called Mobinil.
In Iran, following the contested 2009 presidential elections that prompted wide-scale demonstrations organized in part through social-media websites like Twitter and Facebook, the government filtered and censored the Internet, but still allowed it to function—albeit very slowly. In the same year, Chinese authorities shut down Internet access amidst riots, but that was just for one province.
During protests in Myanmar in 2007, authorities shut down the Internet, but the country's connectivity was meager to begin with, and protestors were still able to get photos out of the country through cellphones.
While Egypt severed all of its cellphone and Internet connections, fixed lines were working Friday, one of the few means, beyond satellite phone and ham radio, to reach the country.
An error message appeared when trying to visit an Egyptian website.
Some organizations that had compiled tweets and Facebook posts in past conflicts concluded they had to rely on the old-fashioned telephone to get word out and in.
"Last night we said, the Internet is gone—so let's just start calling people we know," said Jillian York, with citizen-journalism group Global Voices Online, which is posting reports based on those calls on a website hosted outside of Egypt. "In this case, the phone is the social media."
Facebook saw a "substantial drop" in Egyptian traffic Thursday, and as of Friday saw only minimal use, a Facebook Inc. executive said. A Google Inc. spokesman said people in Egypt largely cannot access Google sites including YouTube, which has been used to share videos of demonstrations.
Network security experts Friday said they detected some minor Web activity, from a few institutions including the Egyptian stock exchange, some companies and government ministries, but an estimated 93% of the country's networks remained unreachable.
The action is surprising given both the vibrancy of the Internet culture within the country, and Egypt's growing role as a regional hub for global connectivity. The country of 80.5 million people had about 65.5 million cellphone subscribers in October, according to a government report. It has among the highest rates of Internet penetration among consumers in Africa, with 21%, according to internetworldstats.com.
Perhaps more important, Egypt in recent years has positioned itself as the main conduit for regional connections to the world. Eight major undersea fiber links now run through the Red Sea and across the Sinai Peninsula, connecting the region to more developed links in Europe, and from there to the rest of the world. Three of those were built in the past two years, and another three are planned for this year, according to Telegeography, an Internet research firm.
"Egypt is now a major Internet crossing point for Africa and the Middle East," said Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks Inc., an Internet security company in Ann Arbor, Mich. "So unlike other countries in the region where this might happen, this is much more of an event."
He said the global links passing through the country handling traffic not related to Egypt appeared unaffected.
—Paul Sonne and Amir Efrati contributed to this article.
I think this is a really bad way to try and control a country's "political unrest" because it would just anger protesters even more. What do you guys think of this?