As anti-government protesters take over the streets in Egypt, the country’s government has reportedly cut off most Internet and cellphone service.
Cairo has labeled its crackdowns on the protests as a response to restore public order.
However, critics say Egypt’s cutting of communications is an attack on free speech.
“I do not see how shutting off the entire mobile phone network and Internet does anything except prevent the Egyptian people from knowing what is going on and preventing them from acting together,” Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse School of Information Studies, told TechNewsWorld.
Silence Is Golden?
Egypt has reportedly cut off nearly all Internet traffic into and out of the country as citizens hold protests and in some cases riot in an effort to oust Hosni Mobarak, who has presided over the country for 30 years.
Cairo apparently ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet just after midnight, local time, according to Renesys.
About 3,500 individual border gateway protocol (BGP) routes were withdrawn, leaving no paths for international Web traffic to come into or out of the country.
BGP routers maintain tables of IP networks, which designate network reachability among autonomous systems. Most ISPs must use BGP to establish routing among one another.
Cairo has also apparently cut off cellphone service within the country.
All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas, Vodafone Egypt said.
Cairo had earlier blocked in-country access to Twitter and Facebook, although some people reportedly managed to create workarounds temporarily.
Twitter was blocked in Egypt at about 8 a.m. PDT Tuesday, Twitter’s Sean Garrett stated.
Twitter declined to provide further comment.
Being Social Is a Dangerous Thing
This is the second time this month that social media was used by angry citizens to put together anti-government protests.
Earlier in January, Tunisians used Twitter and Facebook to coordinate protests that toppled the government of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled that country for 23 years.
“Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become the platform of the masses, and for much of the world, access to them has become as expected as having access to the telephone, radio and television,” Jennifer Jacobson, author of 42 Rules of Social Media for Small Business and director of public relations for Retrevo.com, told TechNewsWorld.
“The fact that today’s social space is accessible from gadgets as small and portable as smartphones enables messages and scenes that would normally take weeks to get out be seen by the world in seconds,” Jacobson added.
What About Public Order, Then?
Whether the Egyptian government is justified in cracking down on social media and Internet communications depends on your point of view.
Sympathizers of the Egyptian government might view Cairo’s crackdown on communications as an attempt to restore public order.
However, “I would view it entirely as a blow against free speech and an attempt to make it easier for a dictator to hang onto power,” Syracuse’s Mueller remarked. “I watched the 1968 Democratic convention on TV as an adolescent. Had that been censored, it would have been a dark day for the country. It was public awareness of this disorder that led to important political changes,” he added.
Chicago police attacked protesters at the 1968 national Democratic convention. News clips on TV showing them battling the crowd led to widespread public antipathy for the Chicago police and the Democratic party. Some said the violence led America to vote Richard M. Nixon in as president.
What Is Freedom of Speech, Anyhow?
Australia has had laws that ban citizens’ access to sexually themed material online since 1999, in some ways taking an even more restrictive stance than socially conservative governments such as those of Malaysia and Singapore.
While the United States may be more open in terms of what’s available online, it did issue a crackdown of sorts in the wake of last year’s Cablegate, the WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 classified U.S. government documents. The Obama government forbade civil servants from accessing those documents online from their office computers, for example.
Further, a bill cosponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins would give the president power to shut down the Internet after declaring a cybersecurity emergency. It would also prohibit review of the decision by the court system and is expected to be re-introduced this year.
Popularly known as the “kill switch” bill, this was first introduced last summer but didn’t get passed by the full Senate.
If such a bill was passed, could Washington be tempted at some point to shut off social media for the sake of public order?
“Social media happens to be the best, most immediate and most visible way to communicate, so it’s no surprise that it’s the first thing people point to when talking about freedom,” Retrevo’s Jacobson said.
“Shutting off all public communications can only be an attempt to keep people helpless and in the dark,” Syracuse’s Mueller pointed out. “It’s not related to the restoration of public order.”
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