Dictators and the Internet

The Internet network is inherently not governed. Yet, each player has a valuable role. January 27 teaches us that a move away from centralization, particularly in the presence of autocratic governments, is crucial.

In a futile effort to cling to power and quell dissent, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime used many avenues to restrict or control information during the January 25 revolution. One of them was shutting down the Internet in Egypt on January 27. By January 29, 91 percent of Egypt’s networks were down.

Egypt’s decision to shut down the Internet contains lessons for information governance globally. Multiple methods were used to take Egypt offline. To get access to the rest of the Internet, Egyptian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) need a “gateway.”  That is a physical link to other ISPs outside of Egypt, which ISPs lease from the Egyptian government. In January, Mubarak’s regime instructed ISPs to disconnect their services or lose their licenses. As the ISPs complied, network addresses within Egypt became unreachable. To its credit, Vodafone resisted, until, in the words of the New York Times, “it was obliged to comply.”

Had ISPs chosen not to comply, Telecom Egypt could have physically cut off connection to the network at the gateway level, which would have severely disrupted traffic in other countries. In addition, the regime reportedly took down Egyptian country code Domain Name Servers, halting all traffic to and from local sites. Finally, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) were disabled, severing in-country connectivity.

With the Internet down, Egypt seemed cut off from the world. The sense of disconnection was heightened because the government had shut off mobile texting and Twitter, pulled Al Jazeera Arabic TV, and even stopped all mobile telephony temporarily. Egyptian business was devastated, untold millions of dollars were lost from electronic transactions, and the banking system and stock exchange were crippled.

Shutting off the Internet is not a new tactic during civil unrest, but the scope of the Mubarak government’s effort was unprecedented. According to the Open Net Initiative, similar blockades have been imposed by Burma, Nepal and China. In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi’s regime mimicked Mubarak’s actions, creating an information blackout in Tripoli.

The Mubarak regime probably intended that shutting down the network would slow political agitation. Although we may never know the true impact, in fact it likely sped up the regime’s fall. In the absence of new technologies, people were forced to rely on traditional means of communication, including knocking on doors, going to the mosque, assembling in the street, or other central gathering places. Thomas Schelling won a Nobel prize in part for discovering that in the absence of information, people will coordinate by selecting a focal point that seems natural, special or relevant to them. Given the protests, Tahrir was the obvious focal point. By blocking the Internet, the government inadvertently fueled dissent and galvanized international support for the people of Egypt.

Both technological and policy solutions are needed to respond to the autocratic blackouts imposed by Mubarak and Gadhafi. From a technological standpoint, activists in countries likely to experience similar problems should invest in “redundancy” as well as “distribution.” Redundancy is an information concept which emphasizes building multiple lines of communication, should one line fail. Distribution is the idea that more independent means of communication should be used, and should be distributed throughout multiple users, not centralized.

A blend of old and new information technologies is best for maintaining true connectivity. “Pen and paper” lists of staff, friends, landlines, mobile, home addresses and other key information to prevent isolation even if the Internet goes down. Further, robust and tested methods, such as FM and shortwave radio are an outstanding means to communicate with the outside world.

The Internet network is inherently not governed. Yet, each player has a valuable role. January 27 teaches us that a move away from centralization, particularly in the presence of autocratic governments, is crucial. Universities and NGOs that can afford to do so should invest in Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs). VSATs provide independent wireless link connectivity through satellite, not cable connections. VSATs can only be forced to stop operating by physically disabling them.  In addition, ISPs should secure satellite links, or find other means to create non-vulnerable gateways.  ISPs must also decide at what point they choose to cooperate with government repression, and at what point they resist. January 27 suggests the market will reward those who take efforts to keep the network up.

Egypt’s January 25 revolution has powerfully demonstrated that social networks and the Internet can play a powerful role in empowering people and promoting democracy. Yet, the January 27 shutdown demonstrates the fragility of access, particularly in countries with high governmental control. Efforts should be made to expand Internet connectivity and computer access in rural, poor and remote areas throughout Egypt, the Middle East and Africa, so that future political movements can empower and mobilize the grassroots. Finally, activists and policy people should demand that rights to telephony and Internet connectivity be incorporated into freedom of information guarantees.

Warigia Bowman is an assistant professor in the Public Policy and Administration department at the American University in Cairo. She blogs at www.democratizingegypt.blogspot.com