Lessons from Egypt's internet shutdown

John C. Tanner
15 Mar 2011

It's only March, but possibly the biggest telecom story of the year has already happened - not the Nokia/Microsoft deal, but the Egyptian government's decision to shut down the internet in a bid to prevent protesters from communicating with each other or the outside world.

The shutdown - which lasted around six days - was and remains 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 websites. And the simple act of doing it has sparked petabytes of debate over how they did it, the impact of doing it on Egypt's economy and whether anyone else would go to that extreme.

The "how" part is in some ways the most crucial bit, because up to now, the general assumption is that you can't just switch off the internet because it's designed to withstand network failures, presumably to include an intentional shutdown.

Initial reports suggested the Egyptian Communications Ministry pulled it off by phoning each of the country's four ISPs and ordering them to shut down operations. But according to a presentation to the Department of Homeland Security's Infosec Technology Transition Council last month, it actually was mostly a case of flipping a switch - in this case, a breaker in the main internet exchange point in Cairo (known as the Ramses exchange). Result: 3500 preŞxes and 50 Egyptian ASNs dropped instantly to 300 preŞxes and 25 ASNs.

"The rest was phone calls and arm-twisting," said the presentation, given by Bill Woodcock, research director at the Packet Clearing House, according to Wired.com's Threat Level blog.

Assessing the damage

Woodcock told Threat Level that details were still scant, but the presentation (available on Packet Clearing House's website) says that Egypt's comms ministry took the most responsible option available, as shutting off the center exchange "made it very easy to switch it back on, prevented surveillance, made it clear to everyone what had happened and prevented spyware from being placed on the networks." Threat Level reports.

Just what the impact the decision will have on Egypt's economy - given the dependence of many businesses on internet connectivity - still isn't yet known as we go to press. The OECD has estimated the shutdown will cost Egypt around $90 million in lost revenues directly related to teleco (and that's not including things like the slew of SLA violations that telecom providers may be held liable for, presuming the contracts don't include a clause waiving responsibility for things like government-ordered shutdowns). The secondary impact on non-telecom businesses that rely on the internet is expected to be significant.

The other big unknown is whether this was a one-off, or something that could happen again. Of the various countries undergoing political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, only Libya has attempted to actually shut down telecom connectivity. Surely the fact that Egypt's shutdown ultimately didn't prevent President Hosni Mubarak's ouster isn't lost on most other leaders who might otherwise consider it.

Even in the US, where legislation has been introduced to give the US government the power to order at least parts of the internet shut down in the event of a "national cyberemergency" - which in its original form resembled a "kill switch" mechanism that alarmed civil liberties groups - the events in Egypt has forced the bill's sponsors to assure critics in a statement that the final bill will contain "explicit language prohibiting the president from doing what President Mubarak did".

Still, it's also a given that governments of all shapes, sizes and ideologies want more control over the internet than they currently have, whether in the name of national security, censorship or copyright infringement. Now that we know that at least some governments are prepared to shut off internet and mobile services if they deem it necessary, we need a discussion setting parameters and procedures detailing how and under what circumstances governments should have that kind of power (if at all), and possible reparations for incurred losses to telecom operators.

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