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.
Web Blockade Only Alienated Egyptian Business
While I could discuss at length the problems the lack of Internet access caused the Egyptian economy, there’s no need; if you’re in business, you already know that commerce has required the Internet for years. Without that access, you’re effectively out of business.
But the Internet outage also demonstrates something else. The Egyptian government is so afraid of the truth, so fearful of information reaching its population freely that it’s willing to risk the economic collapse of the nation to stop it. More than a few days without the Internet, and businesses at all levels of Egyptian society will suffer. Food will be difficult to order, producers will be unable to find buyers efficiently, prices will go up and availability will go down. A population already upset by rising prices and low employment will see yet higher prices and fewer jobs.
Adding to the peril for the government is the alienation of the business community. In general, businesses are willing to tolerate even bad governments as long as they don’t interfere with the ability to do business. But when you start pushing your business community to the brink of economic ruin, then you’ve also created another powerful foe and one that is well-connected at all levels of government and society.
If things get difficult enough for Egyptian business, acts of civil disobedience such as providing WiFi access will escalate. The companies that sell fuel for government vehicles, for example, will have little incentive to deliver it if they’re on the way to ruin. The companies that supply other needed products and services likewise have little incentive to cooperate. Even if they had incentives, they don’t have the communications they need to provide those products and services.
Sure, resuming Internet service lets all that scary information into Egypt again, but that that happened anyway showing that cutting off Internet service is not the way to try to squelch dissent or pacify a politically repressed population.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated with news about the restoration of Internet service in Egypt.