The internet can fit in here, thanks to a State Department-backed effort.
What’s the News: The US government is spearheading—and funding—projects to create “shadow” internet and mobile phone systems, the New York Times reported on Sunday. These systems would allow dissidents to share information and go online in areas where governments have cut off, censored, or severely slowed access to global internet and cellphone networks.
What’s the News: Disconnecting people from the Internet or unduly restricting the flow of information online is a violation of human rights and goes against international law, according to a United Nations report (pdf) released Friday.
The report, written by UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue, highlights “the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole,” its summary says. Furthermore, the report specifies two dimensions of Internet acces: unrestricted access to online content and the availability of sufficient technology and infrastructure “to access the Internet in the first place.”
As usual, Conan O’Brien may have said it best: “If you want people to stay at home and do nothing, you should turn the internet back on.”
The Egyptian government seemingly has learned that shutting down the Internet is no way to get protesters to be quiet, and today it turned the Web back on after protests succeeded in spite of the five-day blackout.
“Egyptian Internet providers returned to the Internet at 09:29:31 UTC (11:29 a.m. Cairo time),” said a blog post by Net monitoring firm Renesys today. Indeed, a variety of Egyptian Web sites, including the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the Central Bank of Egypt, and the Egyptian Stock Exchange are available. And Twitter activity relating to Egypt is surging. [CNET]
Cell phones are coming back online for many people, too, though it’s not clear yet when everything will be fully restored.
In the end, the government’s attempt to kill the Internet proved a dismal failure. The world rallied to give disconnected Egyptians ways to work around the blackout, and the suppression of free speech fueled the fire of protest.
Supplies are dwindling, journalists are being arrested, and protests continue in Egypt today, with a mass demonstration planned for tomorrow. And still, the nation is Internet silent—almost. We remarked on Friday about this historic act of government internet censorship, but just how did the Egyptian government manage to shut down nearly all Internet communication coming out of the country?
It wasn’t a “kill switch,” experts say—the Egyptian government didn’t push a button and take down the country’s Internet service providers. Rather, Egyptian ISPs all must have licenses with the state and follow the government’s regulations, however draconian they may be. So if the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority called and told them to shut down, they didn’t have much choice.
That comports with the data published by Renesys, a net monitoring firm, which saw individual ISPs go dark within minutes of one another. “First impressions: this sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air,” wrote Renesys’s chief scientist James Cowie. “Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced.” [Wired]
The fact that so much censorship happened so quickly is a result of the relative simplicity of Egypt’s Internet, Cowie said in an interview with Scientific American.
“If you look at a complex system such as those in the United States or Canada, you might ask, ‘How many phone calls would I have to make to shut it down?’ It probably wouldn’t be possible. Most of the people you would call operate independent of the government and wouldn’t even listen to you. In a place like Egypt there’s a lot less diversity in that ecosystem. There were just a few key providers, they’re all licensed by the government.” [Scientific American]
You know it’s getting serious when people aren’t using Facebook. The social networking giant now says it has noticed significantly reduced traffic from Egypt as a result of the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down its country’s Internet this week to quash political protests. Though we’ve seen governments attempt to censor the Internet in times of uprising before (like during the 2009 Iranian election), Forbes says this is “the first time in modern history a major Internet economy is being shut down.”
Mobile phone networks have reportedly been disrupted, leaving millions without access to text messaging or phone calls. The country’s key Internet Service Providers are also off the air, says James Cowie, the chief technology officer of Internet monitoring firm Renesys on his blog. “Virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide. [Forbes]
Indeed, Cowie says, this is something new compared to other government internet censorship:
Similar demonstrations and Web outages are occurring in Tunisia, though Cowie noted that the Egypt Internet downtime “is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow.” [PC Magazine]
Thoughts of a government being able to just “turn off the Internet” has people in other countries frightened, but it was particularly easy to achieve in Egypt.
The software tool called Haystack was supposed to protect dissidents in Iran who wanted to use the Internet free of the government’s censorship. If third-party software testers are correct, though, flaws in the system meant to help those dissidents could have led authorities right to them. The Censorship Research Center, the San Francisco-based organization that created Haystack, has now pulled it back and asked users to destroy the existing copies.
“We have halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran pending a security review,” HaystackNetwork.com said in a brief statement. “If you have a copy of the test program, please refrain from using it.” [AFP]
Jacob Appelbaum, a security expert who volunteers with WikiLeaks, sounded the alarm.
As of this writing, the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” Facebook page has nearly 83,000 likes and is rising steadily. Presumably, none of those fans are in the government of Pakistan, as the page prompted the conservative Muslim country to block first Facebook, but then also YouTube, parts of Wikipedia, and other Web sites—more than 450 in all.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) keeps itself busy scanning the Internet for material that it says would offend its population, the second-largest Muslim population of any country. Two years ago it temporarily banned YouTube until the site removed cartoons of Mohammed. Typically the PTA bans particular links, but this week it complained that the amount of objectionable material on Web was increasing and decided to cut off it citizens from some of the biggest sites on the Web. The ban is said to run through the end of May, giving Web sites the chance to remove offending materials if they choose.
Social networking sites are extremely popular in Pakistan, a country of 170 million, where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25. Pakistan has about 25 million Internet users, almost all of them young, according to Adnan Rehmat, a media analyst in Islamabad [The New York Times].
The Iranian government announced yesterday that Google’s email service, Gmail, will be permanently shut down in the country, and will be replaced by a new state-run email service.
The announcement from the Iranian telecommunications agency came on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic, when anti-government protesters were expected to take to the streets. Less than a year ago, thousands of protesters came out in huge rallies protesting the disputed June presidential election. The protests plunged Iran into its biggest internal crisis since the victory of Islamic revolution in 1979 which toppled the Shah [Reuters]. The opposition rallies were watched across the world on YouTube videos, and protesters not only blogged about the events but were also very vocal on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Tehran insists locking down Gmail is meant to boost local development of Internet technology and to build trust between people and the government [Wall Street Journal]. Meanwhile, Google confirmed a sharp drop in traffic in Iran and announced that many Iranians appeared to be having trouble accessing Gmail. The company added that Google strongly believes that people everywhere should be able to communicate freely online.