Egypt may have turned off the Internet one phone call at a time
Egypt's shutdown of the Internet within its borders is an action unlike any other in the history of the World Wide Web and it might have only taken a few phone calls to do it.
"It's something I've never seen; it's totally unprecedented," said James Cowie, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Renesys, an IT company in New Hampshire that helps Internet service providers monitor the security of Web networks and infrastructure.
"Over a period a period of about 20 minutes, it's as if each of the primary service providers started pulling the routes that lead to them. It wasn't like a simultaneous withdrawal.
"Nobody flipped an off switch or hit a big red button. It was one by one until they were all gone."
The Egyptian government cut off nearly all online services between midnight and 12:30 a.m., Egyptian time, on Friday, Cowie said -- something he noted on his company's blog as he witnessed the blackout.
As Egypt entered its fifth day of angry protests, the Internet was still down.
On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that Egyptian security officials have said that at least 62 people have been killed nationwide in the mass demonstrations.
President Obama called on Egypt to turn the Internet back on Friday.
The situation in Egypt is different from what took place in Tunisia recently, with specific services and Websites blocked, or in Iran during its political unrest, where the Internet was slowed down to an almost unusable speed but not entirely shut down, he said.
"Egypt is a modern country; the government doesn't own the Internet," Cowie said. "There are private companies of varying sizes that own and operate their own infrastructure. But it seems that they got a call and so they turned it off."
Cowie said the cooperation of Internet service providers with the Egyptian government has raised ethical questions that can be diffcult for businesses legally.
"The fact is, if the government calls up and makes a request within its legal rights and you're an important company that has to do business and has shareholders and hopes to do business in that country in the future, you simply have to follow the law," he said.
The suspension of the Internet is one of Egypt's latest moves in halting online communications amid unrest.
As the Technology blog reported, on Thursday the government blocked Internet data for BlackBerry smart phones and on Tuesday social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were unavailable to Egyptians as well. Mobile phone service in Egypt was cut off on Friday too.
The Web, and in particular social media sites, have been an invaluable tool for activists seeking political and social reforms in Egypt, said Charles Hirschkind, an associate professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.
"The Egyptian government, they're hoping that these communication methods are a lifeline for the protests and activists and they're hoping that cutting off access will help lead to stopping the demonstrations," Hirschkind said. "But it's also apparent from the number of people in the street that people have plenty of ways to communicate outside of the Internet as well.
"The social networks in activist and in protest movements like this are social networks that extend beyond the Internet. The Internet is a tool but not the social network itself."
[Note: This is a longer and modified version of the story Egyptian government shuts off nearly all Internet service that ran in the A section of the Los Angeles Times on Saturday Jan. 29, 2011.]
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Photos: Anti-government demonstrators protest, top, and a police vehicle, bottom, is set on fire by demonstrators in Cairo on Friday. Protesters have battled police with stones and firebombs, and have set the ruling party headquarters on fire. Credit: Cai Yang / Xinhua News Agency / Associated Press