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Egypt Goes Black

On the afternoon of Jan 28th, almost all Internet traffic in Egypt stopped. Nothing was coming in or going out. Citizens were left with no access to vital communication sources, news sites, and just about every other Web site and service requiring Internet access.

The blackout was most likely an attempt by the Egyptian government to make it difficult for rebelling Egyptian citizens to organize protests. Much of the country is in a state of unrest over allegations the government has not provided a basic standard of living. They’re placing blame squarely on the country’s 82-year-old leader, Hosni Mubarak who’s been president since 1981. The Egyptian government has said publicly that it is not responsible for the outages.

The Internet disruption was preceded by interruptions in service earlier in the week. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (used to organize protests and relay messages from inside Egypt) were blocked entirely.

At the time of this writing, access to the rest of the Internet has been largely halted too. Ninety-nine percent of all Internet traffic had stopped at the time of this printing according to BGPmon, an Internet statistics organization. The government’s own Web site, is unresponsive, too. This is the first time in history a government has taken its entire network connection to the Internet offline.

While shutting off the Internet seems a bit daunting, the way it’s done is really quite simple. Every Internet connection (even the ones here in the U.S.) connect to the network through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Egyptian officials simply told the four ISPs that provide Internet to Egyptian citizens to close their connections completely, ensuring that citizens would not be able to log on to the Web.

While complete blockage has never happened before, blocking certain sites, especially social networking ones, isn’t uncommon. Iran blocked Facebook and Twitter in the summer protests of 2009, and China is a widely known censor of many of its citizen’s Internet activities.

But as a largely connected nation, Egypt’s actions concern me. History shows us that communication is one of the most important weapons used in times of conflict. In wartimes of the past, one of the first goals of leaders is to gain control over newspapers and radio stations to ensure communication of ideas is controlled. In the digital age, Internet access has become old technologies’ successor.

But considering our increasing reliance on the Internet, closing down parts (or all) of the Internet by governments could have detrimental effects. The obvious question is ,“Could this happen in the United States?” I don’t think so. Here’s why.

Much of the Internet’s traffic in the United States exists under the same control as it did when was it was created over thirty years ago—through a conglomerate of private companies and non-governmental organizations that aren’t regulated to the extent needed to shut down the country’s entire connection—yet.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) is re-introducing legislation to create an Internet “kill-switch.” Under the proposed legislation, the president would have the power to shut down the Internet entirely. It would create a way to defend against cyber security attacks, says Collins. I’m not so sure that much power should be given to any single person—even the President of the United States.

The bill only achieved approval in the last legislative session through committees, and it is unlikely that it will go much further this session.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, citizens are doing what they can to communicate with the help of others from around the world. For instance, a French Internet service provider has made available a free dial-up number for Egyptian citizens who still have phone access; and American companies Google, Twitter and SayNow have created a free service called Speak-To-Tweet, which allows citizens to leave voicemails, which are automatically posted to the Twitter feed, “speak2tweet.”

These are just a couple ways that the rest of the world is helping Egyptians get the word out. There are countless others like them. I applaud their efforts. In America we have the right to free speech—and these days, the platform of choice is the Internet.

We must oppose any effort to limit that freedom here in the United States now, and anytime keep an eye out for similar legislation proposals in the future. As for Egypt, most sources say there’s no telling when Internet access will be restored to their citizens.

(To show your support, add the hash tag #jan25 to your tweets.)

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