Marketplace Interview on Egypt's Communications Shutdown

This morning, I did an interview on the public radio show Marketplace on the techniques, effects, and implications of the Egyptian government's decision to shut down the Internet and mobile phone networks.  As the write-up of the segment says:

In the wake of massive protests in Egypt, other countries have been paying attention and sometimes covering things up. The government of China is suppressing mentions of the uprising. Iran is blocking access to news sites, perhaps fearing renewed protests in their country.

That's not all that surprising. They've been filtering the Internet for a long time. What Egypt did -- yanking the Internet almost entirely offline -- that's new.

On today's show, we look at the precedent set by Egypt's decision to block most Internet and cell phone access in that country. Jonathan Zittrain joins us. He's co-founder and co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a frequent guest on our show. Jonathan says that while Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries have means to filter the Internet, Egypt's online system has always been pretty open so when they wanted to block it, they had to go all the way.

Andrew McLaughlin also joins us. He's a former director of global public policy at Google and former deputy chief technology officer for the Obama administration. He says while it was incredibly difficult to get online within Egypt's borders, neighboring countries had no issues at all, even though in many cases, their traffic goes through Egyptian territory.

Andrew tells us that Egypt has worked hard to position itself as a trustworthy hub for underwater cable that goes through the Red Sea, connecting to nearby countries. That service has not been disrupted.

As for what this means for other countries facing similar protests, we just don't know yet since Egypt's actions were unprecedented. But as protests begin to gather in other countries (and keep in mind that Egypt's protests were fueled by the overthrow in Tunisia), it's likely more governments will need to decide what to do about the Internet.

Here's a link to the full interview.  Here's the .mp3 of the show.


Egypt's Big Internet Disconnect

Egypt's internet cutoff has failed in its central aim, but there may yet be further harms

As recently as a week ago, Egypt's internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak's health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt's government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade's worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt's reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime's brutal and hamfisted response to last week's emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country's academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions --one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak's family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

A central unknown at this moment is what the economic harm to the country will be. Without internet and voice networks, Egyptians are losing transactions and deals, their stocks and commodities cannot be traded, their goods are halted on frozen transportation networks, and their bank deposits are beyond reach.

Also unknown is how many Egyptians have been harmed in non-economic ways – as human beings. As things stand, a worried mother who has not heard from her son or daughter can't send an email or check Facebook for a status update. A witness to violence or abuse can't seek help, document responsibility, or warn others via Twitter or a blog.

Life-saving information is inaccessible. Healthy, civil debate about the future is squashed. And in the absence of trustworthy news, firsthand reports and real-time images, rumour and fear flourish. In all those ways, the total internet cutoff undermines the government's own interest in restoring calm and order.

What is clear, however, is that the communications cutoff has failed in its central objective, which was to stop the Egyptian people from organising and mobilising in opposition. As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gather on the streets to demand change, we must all hope that Egypt's officials and CEOs will see the writing on the wall, weigh the costs to Egyptian businesses and citizens – to their economic interests, family needs and human rights – and defy their president's unprecedented and increasingly ineffective blackout.

Originally printed and posted in The Guardian.


An Open Letter to Dr. Tarek Kamel, Minister of Communications and Information Technology of Egypt

Dear Tarek:

The news anchors are reporting that Egypt's Cabinet has just submitted its resignation, and a new Prime Minister has been appointed. As Egypt's Minister of Communications and Information Technology since 2004, you are now most likely heading back to private life.

As a friend, I write to urge you to take one final action before you walk out the door of your Ministry: Give the order to reconnect Egypt to the global Internet, and to drop all remaining blocks on wireless networks.

Unless you act now, in your final hours as Minister, to reverse the Internet cutoff, your name will forever be associated with an unprecedented human rights violation on a national scale, and an economic catastrophe triggered by a shortsighted regime's drive for self-preservation. That would be a tragedy for many reasons, but most of all because I am certain that you don't, in your heart, believe this decision to be right.

We have known each other since we jointly organized one of the first ICANN conferences on global Internet coordination, in Cairo in March, 2000. I know you to be a man of intelligence, integrity, and character. Your record is one of ambitious endeavors, large-scale accomplishments, and thoughtful innovation. Through your early work to bring network links to Egypt and your later service as a Trustee of the Internet Society, you demonstrated your understanding of, and commitment to, the Internet as a powerful tool for free expression and human development. And indeed, until last week, Egypt's Internet, under your administrative guidance, was notable in the Arab world for being free and open -- almost entirely uncensored. (Outside your domain of control, Egypt's security forces used other, brutally effective means of controlling dissent, like relentless surveillance and arbitrary arrests and detentions.) You helped design and build a truly impressive communications infrastructure, achieving impressive levels of Internet access and use, highly competitive mobile and ISP markets, and low consumer broadband prices. Unlike most of your regional neighbors, you allowed Internet voice services without restriction. Egypt is now one of the major crossing points for the underwater fiber optic cables that interconnect the regions of the planet. You led an aggressive initiative to get personal computers and Internet connections into every home in Egypt. At an early date, you used farsighted regulatory moves to enable free dial-up Internet services. Under your leadership, Egypt was among the first countries to launch an Arabic-language Internet top-level domain, making Internet addresses vastly easier for the majority of Egyptians to use.

All of these achievements, however, are now eclipsed by your participation in the Egyptian government's unprecedented decision to sever Egypt from the global Internet, and to shut down mobile phone services.

Even now, two days later, as cellular networks are starting to function again, nearly all Egyptians remain cut off from the Internet. A worried mother who has not heard from her son or daughter cannot send an email or check Facebook for a status update. A witness to violence or abuse cannot seek help, document responsibility, or warn others via Twitter or blog. Life-saving information is inaccessible. Healthy, civil debate about the future of Egypt is squelched. And in the absence of trustworthy news, first-hand reports, and real-time pictures, rumor and fear flourish. In those ways, the total Internet cut-off undermines the government's own interest in restoring calm and order.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting gaps in your digital Iron Curtain, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services. To seek to lock Egyptians behind an airtight seal is triply wrongheaded: it harms Egyptians, increases tensions, and, ultimately, can't be sustained.

Finally, and not least, your use of the Internet kill switch is about to start inflicting serious harm to Egypt's economy, its markets, its workers, and its soundness in the eyes of trading partners and investors. Already, Egypt's reputation as a reliable hub for Internet services and infrastructure -- a reputation you have labored tirelessly for more than a decade to fashion -- has suffered incalculable damage. (Yes, your sophisticated cutoff techniques cleverly made your networks unreachable without interfering with other countries' traffic transiting Egyptian territory and seaways, but the perception that Egypt can't be trusted with critical communications is now widespread, growing, and grounded in reality.)

It is not too late for you to act. Even as your formal mandate is ending, your moral authority is still weighty with the Ministry team you built. A directive from you to restore the Egyptian people's communications at this critical junction in Egypt's history would not only encourage peace and help restore order, but will prevent you from falling, tragically but indisputably, on the wrong side of history. You can, and must, move now to restore your reputation and reverse what will otherwise be a harsh and condemnatory worldwide judgment of your role in silencing Egyptians and infringing their fundamental human rights to speak, write, read, watch, and communicate.

My friend, Dr. Tarek Kamel, for the sake of your legacy and the future of your country: Re-connect your people.

Very truly yours,

Andrew McLaughlin


Originally posted on the Huffington Post.