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Here's How You Turn Off a Nation's Internet Access

Internet traffic to and from Egypt was almost completely cut off January 27, 2011.
Internet traffic to and from Egypt was almost completely cut off January 27, 2011.
Sometime very early Friday morning, Egyptian authorities cut their country of from the Internet. So how did they do it? Turns out that it's not as hard as it might seem at first blush.

According to the OpenNet Initiative, there are two ways to go about the job. One is to target the routers which control cross-border traffic; the other is to close down the routers used by the country's Internet Service Providers.

ONI notes that what we're seeing in Egypt constitutes an (extreme) example of something called just-in-time blocking where a regime blocks access to information at especially sensitive times when it might be crucial, such as an election or mass demonstration.

But Egypt is hardly alone in moving to turn off the cyber spigot.

Recall that in February 2005 Nepal cut the country's Internet connections after declaring martial law. Burma's regime did the same at the end of September, 2007 after protesters uploaded images and videos of the violent crackdown which met street demonstrators.

"What differentiates Egypt from both previous cases is that the government does not have control of the Internet from a central location; rather, ISPs were ordered by the government to shut down service," according to ONI.

Despite reports that dial-up access is available, it appears the crackdown on the Internet has been a success.

Chronology of lost ISP Internet connections in Egypt

An Internet monitoring group called Renesys estimated that 93% of Egyptian's networks were unreachable. It said that the only service provider that has been up and running was the Noor Group. The takedown of Egypt's Internet occurred in rapid-fire precision. According to Renesys, the chronology took place as follows:

  • Telecom Egypt (AS8452), the national incumbent, starts the process at 22:12:43.
  • Raya joins in a minute later, at 22:13:26.
  • Link Egypt (AS24863) begins taking themselves down 4 minutes later, at 22:17:10.
  • Etisalat Misr (AS32992) goes two minutes later, at 22:19:02
  • Internet Egypt (AS5536) goes six minutes later, at 22:25:10.

Elsewhere, Egyptians were reported to have turned to old-fashioned landlines, faxes and even ham radio. Also, some Egyptians are communicating with people outside the country who then are reposting their conversations online, according to Global Voices Online blog.

Complete Coverage: Anger in the Arab World