A week into anti-government protests, Egypt cut out access to the Internet on Friday morning, the same day that opposition members were planning their biggest demonstration yet.
The blackout, which has cut Internet access for some nine out of ten of Web users, began at about half past midnight, when monitors outside the country recorded a spectacular drop in activity.
The Internet, a key tool in both organising gatherings and sharing video footage of demonstrations, including violent police crackdowns, is often the victim of nervous governments. Most Web-wary regimes – such as Iran, Pakistan and, more recently, Tunisia – tend to block addresses for community websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at times of unrest.
But the Egyptian government appears to have gone one step further, simply taking out the country’s official Domain Name Servers (DNS). The servers direct Web users to whichever address they’re searching for – even a start-up page. Without them, only Egypt’s most tech-savvy are able to go online. And that’s if they know the address of an unofficial DNS server.
Mobile phone lines have also been targeted: SMS text messages are blocked and the lines are disrupted, although foreign SIM cards are supposed to be working.
Ray of light
While almost all of the country’s Internet service providers are down, one of them managed to escape the axe. Noor, a relatively small provider, has continued to work throughout the day. This, presumably, is because it provides service to the country’s banks, oil companies, and stock market.
Some Web users have taken advantage of the loop-hole and are using their Noor dial-up connections to access the Web. However, even then, direct access to websites such as Facebook and Twitter is blocked.
In order to get around these blocks, proxy servers have to be employed. Several of these have already been posted online by the few Web users who are able to connect through Noor.
Looking up to Tunisia?
Egypt has a population some eight times the size of Tunisia’s, but a far less sophisticated public in terms of Web use. While it’s believed that between 10 and 20 per cent of Tunisians use Facebook (statistics are vague), only around five per cent of their Egyptian counterparts do. Prior to the recent unrest, the Tunisian government had been using censorship tools to stifle dissidents on the Web for years. Egypt, on the other hand, is relatively new to the threat of an online uprising.
This full-blown shut-down, which looks like a knee-jerk reaction to the country’s worst civil unrest in 30 years, will no doubt cause communication problems for Web users planning to protest Friday afternoon. Unless the government plans to enforce an indefinite ban on the Web, however, today’s stunt is unlikely to curb the protests in the long term.