Egypt's Internet «kill switch» experiment

31 Jan 2011

I’m supposed to be off today, but like many of you, I’ve been following the events in Egypt – particularly the decision by the Egyptian government to shut off most of the Internet last Thursday.

That’s a big deal, not least because, by most accounts, it’s the first time any government has gone beyond the usual filtering and blocking of key social networking web sites and actually ordered ISPs to shut everything down.

Details are still pouring in, and I can’t add too much to what’s been said in this Wired report, as well as this analysis on the Renesys blog on the shutdown. I recommend reading both.

Also, here’s one of the more telling quotes from an report:

"We've never had a lab in which to see what percentage of a country's economy relies on the Internet," Jim Cowie, chief technology officer of the global Internet monitoring firm Renesys, told "This is the experiment."

And it may turn out to be one of the most important experiments ever, because Egypt is not the only government considering deploying this kind of “kill switch” capability.

In the US, the idea of giving the President the legal power to order at least parts of the Internet shut down in the event of a “national cyberemergency” has been floating around since at least 2009. Last June, US Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins proposed a bill enabling a Presidential Internet kill switch, largely to jeers by IT technology and security experts. The bill has since been revised and will be coming up for a vote again later this year.

Whether it passes may depend on the economic price Egypt will pay for shutting down the Internet – which for now is expected to be high and ultimately not worth it, although Renesys has noted that the Noor Group – the ISP that provides connectivity to Egypt's stock exchange and some government ministries – is still online.

Meanwhile, the Egypt Internet shutdown is also likely to serve as an experiment as to the technological feasibility of a “kill switch” in the first place.

A few extra links for you:

BT Counterpane’s Bruce Schneier wrote in July that a “kill switch” is a bad idea from a security perspective for numerous reasons.

The Egyptian government also ordered all mobile operators to suspend services in parts of the country, Vodafone has told the WSJ.

Al Jazeera is reporting that China has blocked the word "Egypt'' from the Sina microblogging service.

Developing …

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