February 8, 2011 | By Eva Galperin

Egypt's Internet Blackout Highlights Danger of Weak Links, Usefulness of Quick Links

In response to ongoing protests, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak ordered a shutdown of all Internet access for five whole days, from January 28 to February 2, but social media and news continued to flow in and out of the country thanks to a group of protagonists dedicated to supporting the flow of information.

EFF board member and co-founder John Gilmore once described the technical robustness of the Internet against censorship by saying: "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Egypt's Internet blackout demonstrated an additional dimension to this adage: that the Internet's anti-censorship features are enhanced by, and to some extent may depend upon, the willingness of individuals and companies to stand up for free expression.

Governments throughout the world are coming to know that citizens' ability to get and give information through the Internet is dependent upon "weak links," and that the most effective route to silencing communications is to lean on a weak link. This is how the Egyptian Internet blackout was carried out: Nearly all of the major ISPs in Egypt—Link Egypt, Vodafone, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and Internet Egypt Network—took their services offline within minutes of each other, ostensibly under some kind of pressure from the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Vodafone issued a statement claiming that they had acted at the behest of the Egyptian government, and the company would later issue a similarly anemic statement after being forced to send pro-Mubarak SMS messages to their customers.

While corporations can be put in a difficult situation when pressured by governments to take actions that violate the rights of their customers, ISPs should not be let off the metaphorical hook with the lame, dangerous excuse of "just following orders." There is a growing awareness that companies have significant public interest responsibilities and should be held accountable for the impact they have on human rights.

The vulnerability of "weak links" is something Internet freedom advocates have been worried about for a long time; it's baked into the architecture of the Internet and there's no easy answer. However, the Egypt Internet blackout demonstrated a strength of the Internet in terms of circumventing censorship—that the Internet is highly amendable to the establishment of "quick links," the kind of relatively easy, quick-and-dirty solutions that get devices and communications content itself onto the Internet.

For example, France Data Network (FDN) and Telecomix News Agency responded by providing dial-up access to Egyptians during the Internet blackout. In a press release, FDN characterized the blackout as an "open attack from a state against the Internet" and offered its dial-up services to Egyptians with analog phones that could call into France as a way of helping to support freedom of expression. Telecomix News Agency, an organization devoted to informing the public about Internet freedom issues, also provided dial-up access as well as extensive technical support. In spite of the government's autocratic control over Egyptian ISPs, the quick, principled establishment of alternatives was able to keep information flowing.

Another example of a "quick link" is Speak2Tweet, the Google/SpeakNow project which gave Egyptians an alternative way to make their voices heard during the Internet blackout. Within a couple of days, the Speak2Tweet service allowed Egyptians to use telephones to leave voicemail messages, which were then posted to Twitter. Egyptians have used the service to leave thousands of voicemails, some of which have been translated into English.

However, at the core of all of this effort to promote free expression with technology is the bravery and dedication of the Egyptian protesters. Though the Internet blackout impaired Egyptians' ability to coordinate and communicate, protests continued in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez with record turnout. All of the work to protect and enable free expression in the face of powerful government censorship actions would have been useless if Egyptian protesters had been cowed into staying home. While the role of technology in these revolutions is being hotly debated, what matters the most is people, their safety, and their rights, and that the best communication tools—for activists or others—will serve those ends without compromise.

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