Egyptian Internet Shutdown Batters Economy, Fails to Quell Protests

News Analysis: Internet users in Egypt found ways around a government Internet blockade imposed in a futile attempt to cut off the flow of information it believed was helping to inspire and organize massive protests. Meanwhile Egyptian business was devastated.

The decision by the Egyptian government last week to shut down Internet access to the outside world has demonstrated that keeping people away from this global resource is virtually impossible. But that should be no surprise. When the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed the Internet, it was designed to be nearly impossible to kill. The designers did their jobs well, as the Egyptian government discovered to it's sorrow.

The government allowed Internet service providers to restore connections at 11:59 a.m. Cairo time on Feb. 2 after apparently accepting that the shutdown had done nothing to quell violent protests calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

Initially, it seemed as if the act of ordering the overseas cables that connect Egypt to the outside world shut down would do the trick, but it didn't and the government had to also close off wireless access and it had to order the few ISPs in Egypt to shut down. At one point while I was researching this story, there was only one ISP that was allowed to keep running, and that was because it was intended for critical financial traffic, such as the stock exchange. But now that ISP has been shut down as well.

Meanwhile, a consortium of U.S. companies made it possible to create Tweets using only a voice phone call. Google, Twitter and SayNow, which Google acquired only a few days ago, are enabling voice callers to use a service called Speak2Tweet. By calling one of several international phone numbers, Egyptians can create Tweets that are marked with a #egypt hashtag.

Other Egyptians resorted to an earlier means of Internet access and using analog modems to dial into modem pools set up by a number of U.S. and European ISPs that are giving Egyptians free access during this emergency. Until the final Egyptian ISP was forced offline, many businesses had removed passwords from their WiFi access points and were allowing members of the public to use their Internet access-a practice that might explain why that financial services ISP was closed down.

But, ultimately, Internet traffic still got in and out of Egypt, albeit more slowly than in the past. While traditional routers weren't doing anyone much good during the shutdown, the Internet has become so critical to society everywhere, including Egypt, that users will go to extreme lengths to retain any level of access to it.

But access to individual users isn't the only problem caused by the Egyptian Internet shutdown. Egypt is a significant player in international trade. By cutting off the Internet, the Egyptian government caused grave damage to the Egyptian economy. Businesses can't sell their goods, get paid or deliver what they've already sold. Ships bearing Egyptian goods may have problems offloading those goods, and the buyers will have problems receiving them.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...