Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt cuts off the Internet amid unrest

Egypt has cut off the Internet from its citizens following growing unrest in the country. There has been a wave of unprecedented protests in the country, much of it coordinated through social networks.

But the Hosni Mubarack led government has attempted to quell the rising anger directed at his administration by cutting Egypt off from the outside world. It has effectively left the Internet unreachable for the vast majority of people in the country.

According to Internet monitoring firm Renesys, virtually all routes to Egyptian networks were simultaneously withdrawn from the Internet's global routing table shortly before 23:00 GMT on 27 January.

Other web traffic monitoring services, including Arbor Networks and BGP Mon, also saw a drop off in activity. "The government seems to be taking a shotgun approach by ordering ISP's to stop routing all networks," said Andree Toonk, a researcher at BGP Mon.

It not only meant that citizens could not access foreign websites, but that the outside world could not access many Egyptian Internet addresses.

Egyptian authorities are also reported to have stunted net access by shutting down official Domain Name Servers (DNS) in Egypt. These act as address books and are consulted by web browsing software to find out the location of a site a user wants to visit.

Messages circulating in Egypt pointed people towards unofficial DNS servers so they could get back online. @EgyptFreedomNow claimed it was still possible for Egyptians to access the internet using dial up connections.

The disconnections were not only limited to the Internet however. There are also reports that cell-phone coverage has been disrupted.

A statement issued by Vodafone Egypt said it had been instructed to suspend services in some areas. "Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it," it said.

The countries four main ISPs, Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr were all reported off the air late Friday. The complete severing of the country's Internet comes a few days after some Egyptians had reported being unable to access social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

At the time the Egyptian government denied it was behind the block, saying it supported free speech. Many of the protesters were able to get round those restrictions by using smartphone apps. Others used proxy servers and VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] to circumvent the restrictions.

But with the cutting off of all Internet traffic and mobile services even these methods fail.

The protests in Egypt followed similar unrest in Tunisia, which saw the collapse of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's government. Amid fears of a domino effect in the Middle East, other regimes are following Egypt's lead in restricting access to some sites. The Syrian authorities have banned certain programmes that allows access to Facebook's Chat application.

Several countries have voiced their concern over the Internet restrictions. Robert Gibbs, the US press secretary tweeted a message last night airing his consternation over the blocks. "Very concerned about violence in Egypt - government must respect the rights of the Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet," Gibbs said on his Twitter stream.

Speaking later to reporters at the White House, Gibbs said, "We believe the basket of individual freedoms includes the freedom to access the Internet and the freedom to use social networking sites. We believe that the people of Egypt have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and that includes the use of the Internet."

Representatives from Facebook and Twitter also spoke out. "The Internet provides people around the world with the power to connect, to learn, and to share," Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement. "A world without the Internet is unimaginable," Noyes said. "Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community, it is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet."

A statement released from the micro-blogging website Twitter said, "We believe that the open exchange of info & views benefits societies & helps governments better connect with their people."

French-based Reporters Without Borders condemned the black-out. "By blocking the Internet and by attacking and arresting Egyptian and foreign journalists, the Egyptian government is trying both to prevent the protests from being organized and to prevent them from being covered internationally," RSF secretary-general Jean-Francois Julliard said [BBC / AFP / WSJ]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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