President Hosni Mubarak hasn’t been able to stop the protesters who took to Egypt’s streets on Tuesday, so in the ensuing days, he’s attempted to stop them from communicating with each other and the outside world.
Several American sites–Twitter, YouTube, Hotmail and Google–as well as the Chinese search engine Baidu were blocked by Mubarak and the Egyptian government on Wednesday, Jan. 26. By Thursday night, Mubarak had shut off Internet access to most of Egypt and disrupted cell phone service. According to tech security blogger James Cowie, the Egyptian government made an “unprecedented” decision in interrupting Internet access.
“The Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet,” Cowie wrote. “Every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world. Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all their customers and partners are, for the moment, off the air.”
In an eery coincidence, Egypt’s decision to interrupt Internet service coincides with renewed interest in the U.S. in legislation that would give the federal government an Internet “kill switch.”
First proposed in June 2010 by independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act would give unprecedented emergency powers to the federal government. At a conference last week, Brandon Milhorn, Republican staff director and counsel for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that the Senate was revisiting the bill, which would conceivably empower the executive branch to demand that ISPs disable their networks or block access.
According to CNET’s Declan McCullagh, “The revised version includes new language saying that the federal government’s designation of vital Internet or other computer systems ‘shall not be subject to judicial review.’ Another addition expanded the definition of critical infrastructure to include ‘provider of information technology,’ and a third authorized the submission of ‘classified’ reports on security vulnerabilities.”
After news of Egypt’s Internet shutdown spread via Twitter and Facebook, a poster at the social networking site Reddit created a thread with the title, “As evidenced by what is happening in Egypt, the only fucking way the President needs an emergency internet kill switch is if the government is doing something really fucking bad.”
In remarks delivered Friday afternoon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the unrest in Egypt. “We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications.”