Egypt’s internet shutdown sparks a communications battle

Freedom of expression and internet access go hand in hand. By shutting down the internet, the Egyptian government has sparked a wider battle about communications, technology, and free speech that goes beyond issues of concern among the country’s protesters.

It’s become clear that the Egyptian situation is leading to a larger conflict over communications and censorship. And lots of companies are going to get caught in the middle and will have to sort out what they’re going to do when governments approach them with orders to shut down internet access.

Renesys, an internet intelligence authority, confirmed the shutdown and called it “unprecedented in internet history.” In cracking down on social media such as Twitter, it threw the baby out with the bath water, shutting down access for businesses, banks, internet cafes, web sites, schools, embassies and government offices, all of which relied on four major Egyptian internet service providers — Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, and Etisalat Misr.

Renesys said the shutdown took place at 12:34 am Egyptian time on Thursday and resulted in all routes to the internet from Egypt going down. By contrast, a few specific routes were blocked in Tunisia when that country went through its recent revolution. In Iran’s protests last year, the government made internet access painfully slow.

Renesys said the move essentially disconnected 80 million peope from the internet. By Friday morning, one service provider, Noor Group, was unaffected by the takedown order. The group is host to the Egyptian Stock Exchange, leading to speculation that it is needed to keep commerce moving in the country.

Meanwhile, Twitter issued its own manifesto in favor of freedom of expression on Friday. Saying “the tweets must flow,” the company’s official blog said that its position on freedom of expression “carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed.” The company said it does remove some tweets for legal reasons and will sometimes turn information over to authorities when required by law. But it will give Twitter users a chance to make their case if they so choose. The company will also encourage more transparency in its process.

In another twist, the Al Jazeera News Service released photographs of the Egyptian uprising via Flickr and made video available under a Creative Commons license. The photographs and videos available are free to use so long as the user gives attribution and does not alter the products. In doing so, Al Jazeera will more easily be able to spread its content far and wide and make sure that its own assets are available even if its web sites are shut down. (Palestinian protesters trashed the offices of Al Jazeera in Ramallah after the service leaked details of Palestinian negotiators’ positions and the concessions they were willing to make to Israelis).

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington, D.C., condemned the Egyptian government’s move. The group suggested that technology companies have robust policies in place to deal with such government demands ahead of time so that they can be in a position to resist demands inconsistent with the rule of law and respect for human rights.

“This action is inconsistent with all international human rights norms, and is unprecedented in internet history,” said CDT President Leslie Harris. “Egypt’s actions will only fuel unrest and make peaceful resolution of grievances far more difficult.”

[photos and video: Al Jazeera]