At 5:34 PM EDT on January 27th, 2010, the Egyptian government turned off its own infrastructure in response to a series of violent protests criticizing President Mubarak’s de facto dictatorship. Mubarak appears to have ordered the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) Link Egypt, Vodaphone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Internet Egypt, and Etisalat Misr off the air. Internet traffic plummeted from 2000 MBps to almost 0 MBps in less than fifteen minutes as every Internet café, bank, school, and embassy went dark. Cell phones also went dark.
This was not an automatic “lightswitch:” rather, the data shows ISPs turning off one by one over the course of 13 minutes, suggesting that the ISPs all received very important phone calls, one by one, instructing them to pull their service.
The Egyptian government first attempted to stop the protest mobilization by blocking Twitter and Facebook. However, this did not stop the access; selective blocking programs can easily be avoided by computer-savvy protestors by establishing anonymous “proxies” to circumvent the censorship programs. Today, they took a different approach, and literally pulled the plug by making the ISPs shut down the Internet – almost like the Mediterranean cable break of 2008. There is no infrastructure – there is no Internet, period. Establishing proxies is impossible – it would be like snipping your phone line and trying to make a call.
Internet use has commonly been used as an organization tool for social unrest. It was predominant in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004, the Red Shirt uprising in Thailand last year, and most recently in Tunisia just a couple weeks ago.
In order to keep communication open, Al Jazeera has released several images and videos under the Creative Commons license. This license makes the photos and images available for free use as long as the user gives credit and does not alter the photos. Al Jazeera hopes that this public access will encourage dissemination of the images to counteract the blackout.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks further encouraged the protesters by releasing cables related to Egyptian corruption and unsatisfactory stances on human rights. Cables showed evidence of the Egyptian government’s suppression of critics, police brutality, and planned undemocratic transfer of power to Mubarak’s son. WikiLeaks also revealed that the U.S. may have supported Egyptian opposition groups.
But with the Internet shut down, how did Egyptians have access to these WikiLeak-ed documents? The hacktivist group known as Anonymous used Egypt’s intact land lines to fax thousands of copies of the cables to various numbers in Egypt. Sometimes, the old ways work best.