And How Low-Tech is Being Enlisted in a High-Tech Battle
UPDATE #1: Mobile Phone Service Returning: News organizations are reporting that mobile phone service is beginning to return in Cairo and some other cities. Earlier, mobile providers like Vodafone had been ordered by government officials to suspend service to the cities of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, among other locations.
The headlines appear to tell the story: “Egypt Cuts Internet Links” says South Africa’s Independent, for example. Or there’s this from the technology blog Ology: “Egypt Pulls the Plug on the Internet“.
But what exactly does that mean? Did somebody use a giant pair of shears to chop through cables? Or did government officials go to the ISPs and unplug actual computers?
No and no. It’s becoming clearer just how Cairo managed to yank the Egyptian nation offline, and it resembles nothing so much as a virtual vanishing act.
Nations have adopted different tactics in battling the web. Burma has taken a heavy hand at the user-end, restricting public access as a means of control. Chinese authorities maintain an elaborate system requiring thousands of workers and expensive infrastructure, all with an eye to filtering web content as invisibly as possible. In Iran, officials there periodically slow Internet traffic to a trickle, hoping those online would give up in frustration at the poor performance.
Now Egypt has added a new trick to the book. Shortly after midnight Friday local time, under order by Egyptian authorities, something called Border Gateway Protocols – or BGPs – rapidly began disappearing from the web.
BGPs are like maps used by service providers and traffic routers to deliver data from one computer to another as efficiently as possible. Erase the map, and the data has no place to go.
“They raised the digital drawbridge,” says Rodney Joffe, senior technologist with the DNS service provider firm Neustar. Speaking with New Zealand’s “Computerworld“, Joffe likened Egypt’s actions to flipping a virtual kill switch:
“Within a few seconds or at most a couple of minutes, traffic could no longer flow. For most of the ISPs inside Egypt, there’s no longer a path that tells other networks how to reach them. One or two minutes, and it’s done.”
One tenuous link to the virtual outside world remains. With only 8% of the Egyptian market, Noor ISP has experienced no disruptions and apparently was not ordered to erase BGP maps…perhaps, as some have speculated, because Noor provides service to the Egyptian Stock Exchange. However, if Noor goes down, the entire nation of Egypt would literally be invisible to the Internet.
It’s a risky strategy. As social networking sites and other media are largely invisible to protesters, so, too, is much of the world now inaccessible to everyone in Egypt. As long as the Internet BGP maps are erased, much of the modern infrastructure of commerce and governance could be wiped out, threatening an already shaky economy. Those in government may become as blind to what’s happening as those on the streets.
But democracy advocates are fighting back. This high-tech war is not only enlisting online conscripts from around the world, it’s employing some low-tech solutions. Computer users with landlines and old-fashioned dial-up modems can access a growing number of ISPs located in Europe and elsewhere to reconnect to the outside web.
The loose-knit hacktivist group Anonymous has been scouring phone records for Egyptian fax machines to transmit a variety of documents, from news reports to leaked US State Department cables on Egypt. Another group, the self-described crypto-anarchist Telecomix, has constructed a wiki providing users with up-to-date information on how to hack into what remaining service exists.
There’s an even more 20th-century solution: shortwave radio. Amateur operators are sending messages into and out of Egypt employing Morse code, although the use of so-called “Ham” radio has sparked a fair debate among amateur enthusiasts.
And then there’s this twist: while the government of President Mubarak has been trying to block its citizens access to the web, it appears China is working to block its citizens information about Egypt.
VOA’s Stephanie Ho reports that:
“The Chinese government is blocking access to searches for the word “Egypt” on social networking Internet sites in China. Experts say the move reflects the government’s fears that the protests in Egypt could whip up unrest in China.”
Listen to Stephanie Ho’s complete report on China’s Internet censorship:
UPDATE #2: It appears China is not the only nation that may be concerned about stories regarding Egypt appearing online. Reuters and other news agencies continue to document an increasing number of news sites that are being blocked in Iran. Particularly targeted are the news aggregator sites like Yahoo! or Google News; while users can access the homepages to these sites, the click-through links to news stories increasingly are blocked.