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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Egypt's internet block backfires

Tech-savvy population sidesteps regime's internet switch-off...

Written on the Ipswich-to-London train and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi site in London's West End sporting 30Mbps and no password.

Controlling populations by restricting their communication used to work, but not any more.

Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have resorted to strangling all forms of communication to control the population. They have invoked a complete ban on meetings, gatherings, travel, mail, the press, posters, advertising and free speech, while in the modern era they have targeted electronic communication.

State-controlled telegraph, telephone, radio and TV easily fall prey to any regime, but mobile phones - and the internet - are another matter.

Egypt's countrywide internet closure

In recent years, Nepal and Burma have been guilty of cutting all links between their populations and the outside world. This past week, Egypt has tried the same tactic by closing down the internet countrywide, but, it seems, without total success.

With only eight ISPs, including just four big operators, plus a limited number of optical fibre cables in and out of the country, controlling all internet traffic would be easy. A simple disconnect by literally pulling a few plugs is obvious, but it is likely they also went for the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP, and DNS to remove address headers.

Interestingly, the Egyptian government is denying knowledge of any problems, especially the targeting of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, while at the same time Vodafone et al are reporting that they have been ordered to switch off major mobile network zones. Doh.

To date, at least one small ISP appears to be still in operation, so the throughput is minimal, as can be seen below. So what are ordinary people doing to communicate and organise their continued protest? They are innovating with any technology they can get their hands on - and their efforts and ingenuity are laudable.

Graph showing that internet traffic to and from Egypt fell off dramatically

Internet traffic to and from Egypt fell off dramatically, according to Craig Labovitz, chief scientist of Arbor Networks
Image: The OpenNet Initiative

People are bringing out old dial-up modems and gaining access to the EU and USA via the fixed-line phone network, which is still up and running. Walkie-talkies and amateur radio are providing close- and longer-range links for voice and data, and wi-fi is being stretched with high-gain antennas.

Furthermore, most of Egypt can probably communicate internally over the country internet. Reports in and out of Egypt may well have been smuggled out as fax pages. The approach undeniably offers a low bit rate, but it is quite sufficient for the key information and truths generated by a growing crisis to reach the outside world.

These are the things we know about, and I suspect there is more. Either way, the developments in Egypt are a warning shot across the bows of those regimes that think they can continue to control people by such mechanisms. An educated people with modern technology constitute a new and different form of society that cannot, and will not, be servile.

Hopefully the outcome of the current trial of strength will be good, and include the right to communicate and congregate in the real and virtual world.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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