Is Egypt Blocking Social Media? Or Is It Not That Simple?
Friday UPDATE: Shortly before midnight local time on Thursday, Egyptian officials ordered nearly all Internet and mobile phone service shut off across the nation. Officials at several ISPs and mobile service providers, such as Vodafone, issued statements explaining their actions by order of Egyptian authorities. Rather than trying to block or slow traffic to specific sites – for example to Twitter or Facebook – it appears authorities have opted for a near-wholesale blocking of digital traffic. Christopher Williams in The Telegraph explores how such a move affects digital communications in and out of Egypt.
Over the last several days, Egypt has seen some of its worst civil disturbance in years. Protesters in Cairo have clashed repeatedly with security forces, while in Suez a government building was set on fire.
The disturbances appear to have ebbed somewhat Thursday, but that may only be a temporary pause. Activists are calling for protests Friday after noon prayers, and Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA and current Egyptian reform campaigner, said he intends to return from Vienna to join in.
Many groups, like the 6th of April Movement, are using Facebook and other social media to organize the protests. VOA’s Bill Ide notes that while there’s a vigorous debate about just how large a role social media is playing in events, no-one is denying its possibilities.
But are Egyptian authorities so worried about the Internet that they’re blocking parts of it? Yes, and no.
The Washington Post’s “The Circuit” blog first reported Twitter blocking late Tuesday, and Twitter officials confirmed the reports Wednesday in a tweet. Facebook meanwhile said as recently as Thursday it does not believe it is being blocked in Egypt.
However one Egyptian blogger VOA spoke with thinks otherwise. “That’s a big lie,” said Wael Abbas, author of the popular “misrdigital” blog. “They started blocking Twitter and Facebook and two opposition newspapers,” he claims, “and one website that we are using to broadcast live video from the streets.”
But the full answer may be more complicated than simply “on” or “off”. CNet’s “the social” writer Caroline McCarthy points out the wholesale blocking of a website – or even an entire service as recently seen in Cambodia – is a somewhat rough tool. Quoting Mark Belinksy of the non-profit advocacy group Digital Democracy, a more sophisticated approach is to simply slow down access to some websites so much that users just give up:
“Egypt is going wild and I’m not sure we’ll really have a sense of it until the dust clears,” Belinsky said via e-mail. “Hard to say whether or not it’s just getting overloaded though…(physically severing) Internet was done in Burma after a while but it usually leads to international uproar. What they generally do is slow down the signal to a crawl, as they did in Iran, which they can then say was infrastructure failure or any other made up excuse.”
So what’s really being blocked in Egypt and elsewhere? Both Twitter and Facebook officials have suggested HerdictWeb as the most up-to-date source on whether sites are being blocked.
A project of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Herdictweb – “the verdict of the herd” – aggregates individual reports of blocked websites from around the world into one real-time report. “By crowd-sourcing data from around the world, we can document accessibility for any web site, anywhere,” they claim.
As of 14 hours UTC Thursday, HerdictWeb had logged 57 reports of Twitter being inaccessible from Egypt, and 14 reports that it was. Compare that to 33 reports of Facebook being blocked, with 37 reports to the contrary.
There are signs other websites are being affected. Almasry-Alyoum is a popular privately-owned newspaper in Egypt; however as of Thursday VOA access to both its Arabic and English language websites was spotty at best.
And there is a deeper question of whether services like Twitter can ever be fully blocked, even with the resources of a national government. “Yes, but not very effectively,” writes Joshua Keating in Foreign Policy:
“Unfortunately for the censors, Twitter allows other companies to develop their own applications using its programming interface. This has led to the development of a plethora of tools that allow users to post to Twitter without ever pointing their browsers to Twitter.com. These third-party clients still appear to be functioning in Egypt. There have even been reports of activists updating Twitter through the professional résumé-sharing site LinkedIn.”
It will take time to fully document what Egyptian authorities are or are not doing with the Internet. However, the story may not end there. There are new reports the events in Tunisia and Egypt may be inspiring recent protests in Yemen and in Jordan as well.