How Did Egypt Kill the Internet?

Egypt shuts down the Web; what would it take to do the same in the U.S.?

January 28, 2011, 11:44 AM

Jan. 28, 2011— -- No Google. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Skype. Since about 5:20 a.m. ET Thursday, virtually all of Egypt has been living in a Web-less world.

In an effort to silence protesters, the Egyptian government took the unprecedented step of shutting down nearly all Internet and mobile phone access, effectively turning off the Web for most of the country.

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Vodafone, second largest telecommunications carrier in Egypt, released a statement today saying all telecom companies were ordered by the Egyptian government to shut off service earlier today.

While countries like China and Iran have previously cut off access to specific websites in their countries, computer network experts say those approaches were modest compared to Egypt's drastic decision to essentially unplug itself from the worldwide Web.

"The Egyptian government's actions...have essentially wiped their country from the global map," wrote Jim Cowie, chief technology officer and co-founder of Internet monitoring firm Renesys, on his company's blog.

Although Egypt has narrowed Internet traffic down to a trickle, it appears that one Internet provider, Noor Group, is still up and running, possibly allowing some Egyptians very limited access to some social media tools and Web services.

Internet monitoring companies don't know why the company is still routing Web traffic, but note that the Egyptian Stock Exchange is still live at a Noor Web address. A few other Internet providers also appear to support minimal Web traffic.

But Egypt has successfully managed to turn off the Web across most of the country,

Egyptian banks, websites, schools, government offices, Internet cafes, homes or businesses that relied one of four major Egyptian Internet service providers are now disconnected from the world, he said, adding that four major mobile phone companies and their customers are also without wireless service.

Cowie said that it would be implausible to imagine that happening in the U.S.

"You just ask yourself, how many phone calls would I have to make to turn it off?" he said.

In a country like Egypt, where just a handful of large companies control the Internet, it could take potentially less than 10, maybe as few as four, phone calls to get the job down.

But in the U.S. -- the birthplace of the Internet -- it could take possibly thousands of phone calls to grind Web traffic to a halt, Cowie said, because the U.S. government doesn't wield as much control over the country's thousands of Internet players as the Egyptian government does.

"We're the oldest Internet market and, because the U.S. Internet has evolved over the years, it's extremely complex," he said. "There are thousands of organizations all participating in carrying Internet traffic around the country and in and out of the country. The number of phone calls you'd have to make would be very large."

Last summer, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced a bill that proposes what many have called an Internet "kill switch" for the U.S. The bill, which is expected to be reintroduced this year, requires Web companies and Internet providers to comply with the U.S. government and gives the president the authority to shut down the Web in a national cyber emergency.

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But Cowie said that cutting off a country's Web access to deal with a cyber threat is like cutting off the entire lower half of a person's body after a snake bite to the ankle.

"It's such a blunt attack on yourself," he said. "I'm already stunned that Egypt would dare do this to themselves. ...Imagine how much business with Egypt is done on the Internet every day. If there's no Internet when everything opens up after the weekend, what happens to the trade? What happens to their credit rating on their sovereign debt?"

In the U.S., not only could the consequences of that scenario be devastating, the coordination to get a "kill switch" program off the ground would be a huge undertaking.

"Imagine that situation in the U.S., where, certainly, you'd get a lot more suspicion and push back from providers," he said. "I just don't see a kill switch going anywhere."

Craig Labovitz, chief scientist for network security and monitoring firm Arbor Networks, said his company also observed a sharp drop off in Internet traffic in Egypt Thursday.

Today there's just "a small trickle of traffic that appears to be going in and out of the country," he said.

Noor appears to to have some routes open, and it looks like there are a few open routes through other Internet providers, he said.

While some Egyptians have been passing information about Web proxies, which are services that let users bypass blocks on specific websites, Labovitz said those proxies can't help when most Internet providers are shut down.

Still, Egyptians could possibly connect to the Web if they have satellite phones or dishes. Those on the borders could also potentially get cell coverage.

"Radio waves don't obey borders," he said.

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