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Summary:

Egypt’s astonishing decision to shut down communications with the outside world — blocking the Internet for millions of people — might look like a wild reaction by an under-pressure government. But evidence suggests it’s a well-planned and meticulously worked attempt to suppress communication.

Egyptian protests by Muhammed Ghafari

Amid spreading protests, the Egyptian government has taken the incredible step of shutting down all communications late Thursday. Only a handful of web connections, including those to the nation’s stock exchange, remain up and running.

It’s an astonishing move, and one that seems almost unimaginable for a nation that not only has a relatively strong Internet economy but also relies on its connections to the rest of the world.

But how did the government actually do it? Is there a big kill switch inside Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s office? Do physical cables have to be destroyed? Can a lockdown like this work?

Plenty of nations place limitations on communications, sometimes very severe ones. But there are only a few examples of regimes shutting down communications entirely — Burma’s military leaders notably cut connectivity during the protests of 2007, and Nepal did a similar thing after the king took control of the government in 2005 as part of his battle against insurgents. Local Chinese authorities have also conducted similar, short-lived blockades.

The OpenNet Initiative has outlined two methods by which most nations could enact such shutdowns. Essentially, officials can either close down the routers which direct traffic over the border — hermetically sealing the country from outsiders — or go further down the chain and switch off routers at individual ISPs to prevent access for most users inside.

In its report on the Burmese crackdown, ONI suggests the junta used the second option, something made easier because it owns the only two Internet service providers in the country.

The Burmese Autonomous System (AS), which, like any other AS, is composed of several hierarchies of routers and provides the Internet infrastructure in-country. A switch off could therefore be conducted at the top by shutting off the border router(s), or a bottom up approach could be followed by first shutting down routers located a few hops deeper inside the AS.

A high-level traffic analysis of the logs of NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers indicates that the border routers corresponding to the two ISPs were not turned off suddenly. Rather, our analysis indicates that this was a gradual process.

While things aren’t clear yet, this doesn’t look like the pattern seen in Egypt, where the first indications of Internet censorship came earlier this week with the blockades against Twitter and Facebook, but when access disappeared, it disappeared fast, with 90 percent of connections dropping in an instant.

Analysis by Renesys, an Internet monitoring body, indicates the shutdown across the nation’s major Internet service providers was at precisely the same time, 12:34 a.m. EET (22:34 UTC):

Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table … The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.

Instead, the signs are that the Egyptian authorities have taken a very careful and well-planned method to screen off Internet addresses at every level, from users inside the country trying to get out and from the rest of the world trying to get in.

“It looks like they’re taking action at two levels,” Rik Ferguson of Trend Micro told me. “First at the DNS level, so any attempt to resolve any address in .eg will fail — but also, in case you’re trying to get directly to an address, they are also using the Border Gateway Protocol, the system through which ISPs advertise their Internet protocol addresses to the network. Many ISPs have basically stopped advertising any internet addresses at all.”

Essentially, we’re talking about a system that no longer knows where anything is. Outsiders can’t find Egyptian websites, and insiders can’t find anything at all. It’s as if the postal system suddenly erased every address inside America — and forgot that it was even called America in the first place.

A complete border shutdown might have been easier, but Egypt has made sure that there should be no downstream impact, no loss of traffic in countries further down the cables. That will ease the diplomatic and economic pressure from other nations, and make it harder for protesters inside the country to get information in and out.

Ferguson suggests that, if nothing else, the methods used by the Egyptian government prove how fragile digital communication really is.

“What struck me most is that we’ve been extolling the virtues of the Internet for democracy and free speech, but an incident like this demonstrates how easy it is — particularly in a country where there’s a high level of governmental control — to just switch this access off.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammed Ghafari

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  1. This is why we should implement a ‘world-wide-web’ that can be run using device-to-device networking, like router to router and phone to phone etc. Is that feasible? In the very least it would allow people within a single city to communicate in situations like this.

    1. why we should implement a ‘world-wide-web’ that can be run using device-to-device networking, like router to router and phone to phone etc. Is that feasible? In the very least i

    2. Inefficient and stupid. More prone to attacks and each device would have to have tons of addresses logged into a table the size of an OS.

      1. Inefficient, at current, definitely yes, if at all possible with current technology. Stupid, definitely not. The idea of having all kinds of radio equipped devices relay information freely among each other to nearby similar devices, is a very good idea. The problem, and probably why you use the word “stupid”, is that there still is no real protocol for creating a global on-demand WIFI mesh (or whatever you would call it). There are some attempts on mere research bases in approach. So far the only solution I can see would be following Bill Gates old idea about a mesh of satellites that would cover most of the planet with free and uncensored access to the net (if they can get the equipment to tap into it).

  2. It’s amazing that this could happen. It’s also a massive death cry of the old regime. The kind of thing that winds people up more and creates a flash point, as it has done today!

    Interesting that Tunisia decided to unblock everything; the exact opposite. Perhaps they thought if everyone was busy twittering and watching stupid videos on YouTube they might be too busy to protest. That back-fired! :D

  3. Hmmm I bet the US .gov is all aflutter about the prospects of further squelching our civil rights with a new kill switch to do this to us!

    1. Spoken like a true paranoid. Is the tin foil hat fitting a little too snug today?

      And, please, before giving me all the true and imaginary ills the government has perpetrated on our freedoms go and check the differences between the US and Egyptian systems of government

      1. Seems the commenter bellow you has pointed out a bill in the works to do just what @Ric is talking about…

      2. Idiot. You sound like a liberal.

        Go check your facts you moron. It’s already in the works.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/17/internet-kill-switch-woul_n_615923.html

    2. Actually, it’s funny you mention that … there’s already a bill http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/17/internet-kill-switch-woul_n_615923.html

  4. Fortunately, it also kills capitalist transactions and profit, so it can’t be left switched off for long.

  5. Should We View Internet Censorship as a Human Rights Violation? « SmoothSpan Blog Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] taken off the Internet.  There’s a Monster long tail of articles on Techmeme about it.  GigaOm tells how it was done.  It only took about 2 hours to completely isolate the country.  That’s pretty scary, and [...]

  6. I heard all the cellphones went dark so that people couldn’t send messages or call each other in order to organize. All I could think about was Nokia’s “Instant Community” concept and how useful that would be in times like this. If people can form ad-hoc networks and communicated without the need of cellular or internet then there would be almost no way to stop groups from organizing.

  7. susannelawrence Friday, January 28, 2011

    Very interesting to see what is happening with the whole government control.

  8. Bobbie Johnson Friday, January 28, 2011

    Stuart, reports are emerging about people trying to create ad hoc wireless networks that can’t be blocked like this. I’m not sure how accurate they are, but protestors would obviously benefit from finding successful ways to route around the existing system.

    1. There’s always CB or FRS(family radio service) which are basically walkie-talkies. A Pair of FRS radios sell for under $20. Range is a few miles; more from hilltops.

      Ham radio (where operators are tested and licensed by governments) provides long-range comms, but most governments can force such stations off the air. And since they’re licensed, they can go to the home and forced it off.

      Too many people rely on the Internet or cellphone. This should be a lesson how they can go down in an instant, either accidentally or by government fiat.

      I keep three FRS radios around “just in case”

  9. That kind of thing really makes me thing about what governments are capable of when they want to.

  10. Meanwhile, Sen. Lieberman attempts to reintroduce his “Internet Kill Switch” legislation in the U.S. Senate.

    The revised version includes new language saying that the federal government’s designation of vital Internet or other computer systems “shall not be subject to judicial review.”

    http://pbump.net/azj

    1. **** “shall not be subject to judicial review” ****

      Didn’t know it was in there, but when I read that phrase it tweaked a brain cell that referenced back to Henry Paulson’s (Sec of Treas under Bush :) COUP document.

      http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2008/09/20/treasurys-financial-bailout-proposal-to-congress/

      “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

      DId yOu cAtCH THAT? Paulson went further. Not just the courts are cut out but “any adminstrative agency” as well.

      Paulson also was giving to Himself the authority to APPROPRIATE any funds He wished.

      “Any funds expended for actions authorized by this Act, including the payment of administrative expenses, shall be deemed appropriated at the time of such expenditure.”

      HE could pass ANY legislation He wanted to:

      “(5) issuing such regulations and other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to define terms or carry out the authorities of this Act.”

      Give powers to anyone and hire anyone He wished to:

      “(1) appointing such employees as may be required to carry out the authorities in this Act and defining their duties;”

      What miscellaneous authorities did G-d Paulson give Himself? Answer: Authority OvER tHe miLItary and thE PoLIce.

      “In exercising the authorities granted in this Act, the Secretary shall take into consideration means for–

      (1) providing stability or preventing disruption to the financial markets or banking system; and

      (2) protecting the taxpayer.”

      The last one is my favorite. Who is a *taxpayer*? Hmmm, is not everyone, even candy purchasing kids liable to pay tax? Corporations are also taxpayers…

      G-d Paulson covered all his bases.

      Even the one about being G-d Forever:

      “Sec. 9. Termination of Authority.

      The authorities under this Act, with the exception of authorities granted in sections 2(b)(5), 5 and 7, shall terminate two years from the date of enactment of this Act.”

      Paulson wants you to believe this terminates in two years. However, 2(b)(5) does NOT terminate and that one says he can just place the crown back on His own head:

      “(5) issuing such regulations and other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to define terms or carry out the authorities of this Act.”

      Cheers

  11. How to Turn Off the Net Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] did the Egyptian government shut off the Internet? GigaOm’s Bobbie Johnson has some interesting technical information: Essentially, we’re talking about a system that no longer knows where anything is. Outsiders [...]

  12. On the Communications Shutdown in Egypt | The Moderate Voice Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] Bobbie Johnson on how they did it, “Essentially, officials can either close down the routers which direct traffic over the [...]

  13. What’s interesting to watch is how, without mobile or internet, the revolution continues. Life continues.

    The internet is NOT essential to communication. It speeds it up, it’s convenient, we love it. But, it’s not essential. To some degree, I have to wonder if not having internet, motivated more people to engage in the real world and head to the streets?

    The internet for commerce (keeping stock trading open) is essential for economic stability. Beyond that, we can live, breath and act, without it.

  14. I wonder how long it will take before the government restores access… what incentive do they have at this point? The moment access is restored, the Egyptian internet will be ablaze with criticisms and truths that the government would rather not have see the light of day.

    These are frightening times for those whose governments are too large/controlling. I wonder what would happen if the US Government shut the internet down in a similar fashion.

  15. Ed. Christopher Lawrence D. Friday, January 28, 2011

    FATAL ERROR: Please contact System Administrator. – Push for President Internet “Kill Switch” CBS News ~ http://amplify.com/u/anv4m

  16. Since Eqypt is off the internet can we take back those IP Addresses and stave off the ipV6 transition for a little longer?

  17. Hi there, I have reported an analysis related to before and after the egypt telecom isolation

    http://extraexploit.blogspot.com/2011/01/egypt-telecom-as-isolation-bgplay-show.html

  18. ManOfLaMancha Friday, January 28, 2011

    It’s also very easy to die if done properly (stop breathing) – so the ease of killing the Internet is not that surprising.

  19. Top Posts — WordPress.com Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] How Egypt Switched Off the Internet Amid spreading protests, the Egyptian government has taken the incredible step of shutting down all communications late [...] [...]

  20. From the Listening Post… 01/29/2011 (a.m.) « Sean Lawson, Ph.D. Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] How Egypt Switched Off the Internet: Tech News and Analysis « [...]

  21. I am one of those unusual people who has throughout my entire lifetime been gifted to “See” ahead. As i watched part of the Egypt uprising happening today I recall “Seeing it” in a dream about 3 years ago. It reminded me that this situation could very easily happen in this nation… its not so far away or so out of reason… the people are angry and hurt and disillusioned with the present government, this is a fact.. an uprising of the magnitude of Egypt and beyond could easily happen if people continue to be disempowered by the corporations, politicians and the local, state and federal government. If this does go to blows you certainly must realize that the gov’t will do all it can, all in its power to win, at any cost. What do you think the Gov’t of Egypt is now doing?

  22. Larry Magid: Mubarak Can Cut the Net but Can’t Stem Information Flow at NEWS.GeekNerdNetwork.com Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] people almost certainly didn’t actually cut any cables or pull any wires. But, as Gigaom pointed out, they likely took “a very careful and well-planned method to screen off internet [...]

  23. インターネットを政府が遮断したときの代替手段を考えるフォーラムOPENMESH Friday, January 28, 2011

    [...] エジプトにおける、インターネットの遮断という未曾有の事態を受けて、エンジェル投資家のShervin Pishevarが、OPENMESHというフォーラムを立ち上げ、通信ネットワークの政府による妨害行為を防ぐ方法を議論していくことにした。この…今のところ閑散としている…サイトは、Pishevarが彼の考えをツイートしてから数時間後に、フォロワーの@Laksmanと@garyjaybrooksが設計し構築した。 [...]

  24. Funny, but wasn’t the entire premise of the internet intended to be its robustness? It was designed to provide communications even if nuclear attacks took out major links in the network. It should (theoretically) work around any outage.

    Back to the drawing boards…

    1. The internet is robust, we are still communicating aren’t we? In this scenario Egypt is the ‘link’ that went down.

  25. For further information on this action, please see my blog http://flaauthor.wordpress.com/

    Views from Sandhausen http://tiny.cc/c64zt

    Cliff Feightner

  26. They would send someone to each house in America with a sledge hammer and slam everyones routers.

  27. I wish we weren’t using terms like “switched off” as though there a big Red Button somewhere. This is a communications network that was designed to survive a nuclear war even if large chunks of it were destroyed: there is no circuit to break or central control point. Factor in the enormous growth in commercial use and the distributed control of all those ISPs and backbone providers. Also consider the gov’t doesn’t control a TLD like the .eq domain: who owns .com/.net/.org? And more to the point, can you imagine a more destructive blow to the economy that shutting down access to Amazon or any other large retailer? Or breaking the links between the large financial centers and stock exchanges? Even the government itself would be hamstrung by this.

    While I agree that it’s an unacceptable undemocratic action on the part of the Egyptian gov’t that we should denounce (does our own Bill of Rights protect open communication in the same way? Maybe a more modern 2nd Amendment would protect unencumbered electronic communication over guns.) I find the hysteria distracting and silly. I would expect journalists who are versed in this area to use more appropriate words like “tampered” or “degraded” before switched off. That would reflect a more complex action than simply throwing a switch and would make clear that many people were involved, technicians and administrators, not just politicians.

  28. One single day is a holiday.
    Two days is weekend.
    Three days is a national holiday.
    Four days is a disruption.
    Five days with out internet access is a catastrophe.

    Call me back if you can’t access the Cairo Stock Exchange for a week.

  29. I agree with Analysis by Renesys

  30. The united nations needs to step in, shutting the right to use the internet is not a government position.

    I hope those people take out their messed up government!

  31. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see governments shut down the internet. As the author stated it’s already happened/happening in other countries. Will probably be the norm. for governments in the future.

    When things go bad for people in power, the internet is one of the 1st things to get shut off. Saddle up your horses boys, it’s time to ride!

  32. If your goverment shut down the internet, shut down your goverment.

  33. Matthew Kivett Sunday, January 30, 2011

    A global satellite-based service would be invaluable in this type of situation. If no single government had jurisdiction over the satellites, there wouldn’t be any way to prevent people within the country from connecting with their own devices.

    What is the current availability of this type of service? I know there is global satellite phone coverage, so it can’t be too far from reality.

  34. In South Africa we have a word for Hosni Mubarak. Kaffir. Hope he gets burnt alive.

  35. Ricardo Santos Monday, January 31, 2011

    If the USA decides to do the same, the result will be that people will not have room to vent. Resulting on people finding other avenues, like overthrowing government. Thus I doubt the USA would do something like that. Instead they will create a black list of ips, so that they can selectively shut down the opposition. And this is the new law purpose, selective freedom of speech.

  36. I don’t know whether Egyptian economy is as much as dependent on the internet as Western economies, but anyway I’d say this is really an act of state terrorism. Facebook and Twitter aren’t really the most important apps on the net. The Egyptian government has really shown its real face by sabotaging their own economy only as a last attempt to cling on to power.

  37. Unbelievable! And our gov’t authorities are saying Egypt is a “democracy”–yeah right!

  38. As a neutral observer on the planet Earth, I found out that peoples, in all nations and countries, are allowed to live ‘free’ as long their majority can be made to believe what their ‘top’ regional media tells them or, in the least, can be guided on how to keep pretending to believe. Otherwise, ‘new measures’ would be taken to restore the lost ‘freedom’ of the people back. So if all people on Earth know this truth, there would be no need for ‘revolutions’ as it is the case in America and Europe lately, for example. This was and still is the natural fate of the ordinary people’s since the birth of humanity and can’t be changed (like Physics laws).

    For instance, this truth applies to the masses and not to individuals who (though very rare) might find the real peace and freedom in their inner by living the unconditinal love towards all others.

    1. Yo do realize, however, that just because you try to live at peace doesn’t mean that others will try to take advantage of you or remove you if you are perceived as a threat.

      For example, the Tibet was a peaceful country, but China did invaded it in 1953, using less than peaceful means. This resulted on the leader of the country “The Dalai Lama” to free or otherwise be death.

      And there is a constitution on the USA, but that did not stop the government to put American born citizens, but from Japanese parents into concentration camps without trial during WW2. Imagine your rights being eliminated just because your parents where Japanese.

      There is actually a law that is being passed that will allow the USA government to create a black list of ip. And you can be included without need of a court order, nor any liability on the ISP. Of course they will tell you is for piracy and for pornography. But in reality it can be used to block whatever they want without legal consequence. Making the “freedom of speech” that the constitution protects, a “selective freedom of speech”.

      See: http://demandprogress.org/blacklist/coica

      The price of freedom is the eternal vigilance, is better to be safe than sorry.

  39. Monday Reads | The Big Picture Monday, January 31, 2011

    [...] Soem longer form reads on my Instapaper: • Normal Recovery? No Way (Comstock) • Why Egypt’s popular rebellion is the greatest historical event in a decade (Canonical.org) • Want an MBA? Don’t bother (Economist) • Demand Media’s Planet of the Algorithms (BusinessWeek) • The shocking truth about the electric Volt (Washington Post) • Sabermetrician In Exile (Yahoo Sports) • The art of good writing (FT.com) • How Egypt Switched Off the Internet (GigaOm) [...]

  40. Egypt As Example: A Case For Mesh Networks on Phones: Mobile Technology News « Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    [...] protests, tweets and phone calls have put the region front and center on the world stage and have caused the Egyptian government to effectively shut down Internet access in the [...]

  41. In Egypt there are riots, civil war in the capitals and the Western countries find a common position. Some, like UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon calling for free elections immediately, while Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Mubarak strengthens the back. Maybe that’s a good thing, because ultimately must decide the Egyptian people, how to proceed there. In my eyes this Mohamed ElBaradei only one who now wants to jump on the moving train to dust at times quickly president. He is in my eyes is not democratic legitimacy.

  42. What is funny is that the government did that after all the protesters had arranged everything, and only need to say good night!..then the government kept it closed even after everything is arranged and going on!..i think there should be another reason for closing the internet

  43. El botón rojo de Internet cada vez más lejos « Manuel Aragón Sunday, February 6, 2011

    [...] El día 27 de enero en medio de las revueltas que aún continúan, el gobierno egipcio decidió cortar la comunicación de toda su población con el resto del mundo. La primera pregunta que me invadió fue ¿Esto es posible técnicamente? y parece que sí, la forma es enviar una orden a todos los proveedores de Internet (ISPs) para que corten las conexiones sin derecho a reclamo o a preguntas, sancionándolos muy fuertemente si se rehusan a hacerlo. Aquí una explicación técnica de como lo han hecho http://gigaom.com/2011/01/28/how-egypt-switched-off-the-internet/. [...]

  44. ¿De quién es Internet? | ruizdequerol Monday, February 7, 2011

    [...] expeditivo del apagón de Internet por parte del Gobierno egipcio ha provocado más de una DialécTIC@ interesante y apasionada. No es [...]

  45. It does beg to question if our government needs this same capability or not, which is what they’ve been pushing for. Fact check spins it by saying it’s technically not to shut everything down but to allow the government to shut off sections, like certain people and neighborhoods. Also, Obama wants to go the extra mile and establish a traceable Internet ID for everyone to more easily trace who’s Internet account posters and others are using. It’ll be utopia supposedly, you won’t even need other passwords since your government approved security will be all you need. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501465_162-20027837-501465.html

    Unfortunately, like most things lately, details are vague until it’s ready to rush though, so all we can do is discuss and debate the supposedes until then. The only details are things like it’s supposed to prevent us from having to remember passwords and it will be done through collaborative corporations with government guidance so it seems led by the private sector and not the government. http://www.businessinsider.com/obamas-internet-id-2011-1

  46. Building the Technology Stack for Internet Freedom: Tech News and Analysis « Thursday, February 17, 2011

    [...] communications because of government interference. While this technology stack would have been of limited use in Egypt, it actually could have helped protesters in the country stay connected to each other if not to the [...]

  47. Who’s Filtering the Web in the Middle East?: Broadband News and Analysis « Monday, February 21, 2011

    [...] has shut off web access for its citizens, following in the wake of Egypt, which cut off access to the web at the end of January as a means to stop protesters attempting to oust President Hosni Mubarak. But [...]

  48. Hackers Target France, South Korea, WordPress: Tech News and Analysis « Monday, March 7, 2011

    [...] that the internet can have on politics — so important for communication that it was shut down, first by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and more recently by Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. But it’s worth remembering that it’s not just [...]

  49. Lawmaker in Brazil Aims to Make Broadband Access a Right: Broadband News and Analysis « Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    [...] develop broadband services, including making mobile spectrum available. In light of the role that web-based communication played in recent citizen uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, it’s easy to see how Brazil [...]

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