Egypt’s Internet Blackout Fuels Fire, Raises Questions for Companies
Last week, the Egyptian government severed the Egyptian Internet and shut down mobile communications in an attempt to block use of organizing tools, access to independent media, and links to the outside world. These actions mark an enormous set back for Internet freedom, and will surely add more fuel to the current unrest. Indeed, three days later, the demonstrations continue, building momentum despite the blackout.
The scale of the Egyptian government’s actions is unprecedented. We have seen governments use intermittent blocking, throttling, or network disconnection during times of unrest before - our friends at the ONI describe this phenomenon as “just-in-time blocking.” However, the Egyptian government has taken extra care to ensure as complete a blackout of networked technologies as possible. Available analysis suggests that the government tampered with the country’s DNS (the system that resolves human-readable web addresses to numerical IP addresses) and stopped allowing Egyptian IP addresses to be visible through the Border Gateway Protocol (the method by which routers advertise the range of IP addresses they know how to reach). Thus, any request for a website with an Egyptian IP address fails because the IP address appears to not exist on the Internet. In essence, the Egyptian government took the Egyptian Internet off the network map entirely, rendering Egyptian websites inaccessible both inside and outside the country and cutting links to the global Internet. In addition, the government ordered mobile providers to shut down, though reports today indicate the mobile networks may be operating again. Curiously, though, one ISP did not shutter its network immediately, though some reports indicate it is now down.
Egyptian citizens have grown increasingly frustrated with their inability to have their grievances heard under thirty years of President Mubarak’s rule. This frustration has been heightened by the government’s increasingly tight controls on traditional media. Indeed, one reason civil society has embraced social media in Egypt is because it gives independent media and ordinary citizens a platform to discuss issues of political, economic, and social concern. Now, the government has pulled the plug on the one communications medium that allowed its people to air grievances freely, violating human rights and likely delivering a further blow to the Egyptian economy - two core issues driving the current unrest. It is hard to imagine a more counterproductive move.
While the government may have believed that cutting off Internet and mobile phone service would somehow staunch the protests or shield from international view the government’s response, the swelling crowds on the streets demanding change are a testament to the futility and indeed folly of this strategy. And whenever governments try to suppress online communication, information simply emerges through other means. Indeed, digital activists have mobilized to preserve links to the world for Egyptians, no matter how low tech. Mubarak must realize that he cannot keep an entire country disconnected from the global community forever in the modern digital age. The US government and the international community must press the Egyptian government to lift the Internet blackout as a first step towards any progressive dialogue that can result in peaceful resolution of current tensions. No government can claim it is listening to the concerns of its people while also removing the people’s ability to communicate and associate.
And what of the role of technology companies? Egypt’s actions demonstrate how vulnerable mobile and Internet access companies are to pressure from government to take actions that can directly harm human rights. While we appreciate that some companies involved have taken the first step to acknowledge their role in the blackout, events unfolding across the region underscore how critical it is for companies operating in these risky environments to have robust strategies to push back on government demands inconsistent with rule of law and respect for human rights. Spooked by events in Egypt and Tunisia, several neighboring countries in the region have also stepped up controls on information online. And reports indicate that some online service providers have begun filtering out references to Egypt within China, a common tactic of the PRC government. (Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government may not want its citizens informed of popular democratic reform movements abroad.)
Many technical controls on online information could not be implemented without the cooperation of multinational corporations. What is happening now in North Africa (and elsewhere) is not unforeseeable in a region where rule of law is weak and governments have poor records on human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy. Companies looking to operate in such risky countries cannot simply turn a blind eye toward these unpleasant facts; they must have a proactive strategy in place to mitigate the harm to human rights if they are asked to cooperate in acts of censorship and surveillance (the Global Network Initiative provides a forum for companies to develop such strategies). And critically, companies must understand that it is in their best long-term interests to encourage governments to respect the rule of law and human rights norms in their everyday business interactions, even where it may incrementally affect short term business interests with a particular government. After all, as events in Tunisia and Egypt may demonstrate, those in power can be challenged and companies could well find themselves on the wrong side of history.