Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Shutting Down a Nation’s Internet: The Case of Egypt

Posted on | January 29, 2011 | No Comments

Late in the evening of January 27, 2011, US trackers watched the global access to Egypt’s cyberspace shut down. Starting with incumbent Telecom Egypt’s TE Data, Raya Telecom, and other ISPs (Internet Service Providers) around the country began to hit the proverbial Internet “kill switch.” Content from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and emails failed to traverse the country’s cyberspace borders shutting off major flows of information about the protests hitting the streets. It cut off potentially embarrassing pictures and videos depicting violence or calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

Arbor Networks, a network security company, was monitoring the country’s Internet service providers and created this timeline image of the Internet traffic blockage in Egypt.

Egypt Shutting Down Internet

The Internet and particularly its social media capabilities had been identified as being crucial to the events in Tunisia that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. As unrest spread throughout the “Arab Spring” the Internet was identified by incumbent powers as a potential threat.

Internet data primarily interconnects to the historic country using the FLAG, SEA-ME-WE 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4 fiber optic cables. Arabsat also provided Internet connection throughout the region along with broadcast channels, but satellite modems have lacked sufficient speeds to compete with the fiber optic channels.

seamewe3Rather than shutting down these major data highways or DNS names, it appears calls went out to individual ISPs to immediately shut down groups of IP routing paths using the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) that makes core routing decisions. Although virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses were soon unreachable, a few valid paths allowed the stock exchange and some other web addresses such as the Commercial International Bank of Egypt to retain Internet connections. By late Monday night, nearly all traffic was cut off with the Noor ISP shutting down its service to major customers like Coca Cola, the Egyptian Stock Exchange, and Exxon Mobile. Professor Jim Kurose explains Border Gateway Protocol.

Perhaps more disturbing was the “Deep Packet Inspection” (DPI) equipment produced in California that can be used to help nation-states “track, target and crush political dissent over the Internet and mobile phones.

It was one of the early myths of the Internet that it was above or beyond the reach of national governments. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (February 8, 1996) by John Perry Barlow was an articulate and hopeful vision of a technologically enhanced public space. Written as a response to the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, which contained the infamous Communications Decency Act that died shortly after conception but left behind 47 U.S.C. § 230, a Provision of the Communication Decency Act. Otherwise known as Section 230 that remains a potent defense for ISPs who wanted avoid the responsbilities a publisher and provided immunity for social media companies.

Increasingly governments around the world have been positioning themselves to be able to control the web in their respective countries and particularly its connections with the outside world. In the US, a bill was introduced in the US Senate in 2010 called the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act” that increases the government’s control and protection of the Internet infrastructure, including commercial and government assets.

Google has been working with Twitter to provide the Speak2Tweet application that is proving useful as it allows people to call in from Egypt and post messages. BBC reports on a variety of old and new media technologies being used to bypass the nation’s controls.

It is important that social movements keep in front of technological developments like Deep Packet Inspection so that it used for democratic progression and not authoritarian repression. The Global Network Initiative is one example of a consortium of corporations and civil service organizations working to preserve an open Internet.

Update on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

In February 2022, Ukrainian authorities and citizens were alarmed by several events on their Internet that looked like DDoS attacks and BGP hijacks. It looked like the Ukrainian network was being hacked, but these events were inconclusive. BGP is based on trust between network operators such as AT&T in the US and BT in the UK. It tries to legitimate which routes should be used. In any case, it led to calls to shut off Russia from the Internet.

In line with many sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine, international ISPs also considered such actions. In March 2022, Cogent Communications, a leading backbone provider, and Lumen (formerly CenturyLink) announced they would stop servicing Russia networks. Their Russian customers included the state-owned telecom Rostelecom and other important ISPs. The events served as a wake-up call to the importance of the Internet’s routing system and the need to protect it.

Others began to consider how to protect the region’s network infrastructure and whether to remove Russia from the Internet. But it is important to recognize that the Internet is important for many parts of society, including ordinary citizens. If the public spaces of news and participation are left exclusively to more official media outlets, whole populations could be cut off from Internet access. This may stop disinformation coming from unsavory regimes—but it also stops the flow of alternative views.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He first taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii for many years.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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