Egypt shuts down Internet, cellphone services.

Internet access blocked in Libya and Egypt - Comment on 2011 March 10

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2011 March 10
"What is happening in Egypt just goes to show the leverage that governments have over telecom providers. They can get these companies to do what they want because of the number of employees in the country and the amount of infrastructure in place." Read more:

Last month I wrote about the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt on the 28th of January 2011, 2011 Feb 17 (2) The control of the Internet, and now I learned that it was actually on the 27th of January 2011, and last month I also had an entry 2011 Feb 25 The deleting of data and also there it was about having or not having access to data.

So today I read more about governments shutting down the Internet and I therefore bring here some of the information I read and which comes from the first three months of this year:

 

Internet Access Blocked in Libya (4th March 2011)

Internet service was blocked in much of Libya, notably the capital city of Tripoli, making it difficult for people to plan or communicate Friday in the violence-torn country.

U.S. firms that monitor global Internet networks reported that Web traffic in and out of Libya was disconnected abruptly Thursday afternoon local time and continued to be unavailable late Friday.

Tripoli, a city of 2 million people, was suffering a near-total outage, according to residents in several neighborhoods, as well as Libyans abroad who are in telephone contact with family members in other neighborhoods.

Google Inc., which tracks the status of its services, reported a sudden halt in traffic from Libya starting at approximately 2 p.m. local time Thursday (7 a.m. EST) and continuing through Friday. A Google spokeswoman said the company's search engine as well as YouTube and Gmail services "are inaccessible" in Libya.

It wasn't clear what was causing the outage, though network-security experts said it was unusual for a country like Libya, which has multiple connections to the outside world, to drop off the Internet.

"For a country the size of Libya, it's unlikely that a single event, a naturally-occurring event, would isolate a country," said Craig Labovitz, chief scientist of Arbor Networks Inc., an Internet security company in Ann Arbor, Mich. For Libya, he said it would be relatively easy to reprogram few server computers or turn off power to "a handful of data centers" to cut the country's connections to the Internet.

Earlier this year, in the face of mounting political unrest, Egypt's government took the unprecedented step of severing all Internet connections and shutting down its cellphone services - with the cooperation of international firms. The services were restored about a week later.

Internet access in Tripoli went down late Thursday night and mobile-phone connections were patchy throughout Friday. Web access was restored at least temporarily at one or two major hotels where foreign journalists are staying.

Jim Cowie, chief executive of Renesys Corp., a network security firm in Manchester, N.H., said it marked the third time in recent weeks that Internet has been unavailable in Libya. There were two overnight outages about a week ago.

Libyia Telecom & Technology, or LTT, is the country's main international Internet service provider. Mr. Cowie said international connections to Libya are open and Internet traffic is making it to the Libyan border but "they're not passing any traffic. I think that has to be by choice."

Libya shuts down Internet service ahead of planned anti-government protests (4th March 2011)

Internet services in Libya, already spotty throughout the country's violent upheaval, appeared completely halted in an attempt to stifle information about the insurrection.

The move, coming ahead of planned protests in Libya, appears similar to Egypt's response to the demonstrations that led President Hosni Mubarak to step down last month. The Libyan government controls the country's primary Internet service provider.

Arbor Networks, a Chelmsford, Massachusetts, network security company said Friday that all Internet traffic coming in and out of Libya had ceased, starting at about noon EST Thursday (1700 GMT). Google's transparency report, which shows traffic to the company's sites from various countries, also showed that Internet traffic had fallen to zero in Libya.

Several days into Egypt's largely nonviolent protest, the government there shut down Internet access for almost a week. Anti-government protesters there had been using social-media services such as Facebook and Twitter to organize and share personal experiences of the unrest.

That wasn't the case in Libya, a country where relatively few people have Internet access. Only about 6 percent of Libyans have Internet access in the home or in public places, such as Internet cafes, according to the research group OpenNet Initiative. That compares with 24 percent of Egyptians and 81 percent of people in the U.S., according to OpenNet.

As a result, services such as Facebook and Twitter have played a marginal role in galvanizing anti-government protesters, said Jillian York, who coordinates the OpenNet Initiative, a research project run by scholars at Harvard University and the University of Toronto and by the Canadian consultancy SecDev Group.

Nonetheless, because the Internet isn't as central to everyday life in Libya, it is more likely that the few who can get online are educated, influential and using the Web to keep informed about politics, York said.

"You've got millions of people in Egypt using the Internet. It's not just the few people with access are reporting on protests. It's mommy blogging. It's all sorts of things not related to the protests," she said. "In Libya there's a stronger chance they'd be focused on what's happening right now politically."

But the blackout will affect even those who are not politically active. The loss of Internet access will make it more difficult for Libyans, particularly those living in the capital of Tripoli, to receive updates about the uprising in other parts of the country, said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes free expression on the Internet.

"For the people not in Tripoli the Internet is not so central in what's become an armed rebellion," she said. "For the people in Tripoli it's going to further isolate them from people in other parts of the country and information about what's happening there."

In particular, an Internet blackout in Libya will make it tougher for people outside the country to know how the uprising is unfolding. That was likely the government's main motivation in shutting down the Internet in a country where people are more likely to communicate using cell phones, said Richard Esguerra, policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I think what it raises is illuminating about how desperate this act is," he said. "Shutting off the Internet seems to be one of the last things in the playbook in terms of a dictator that's being threatened by uprisings."

The AP saw no evidence of cell phone disruptions in Libya on Friday though coverage has on occasion been spotty. Libya has one of the highest concentrations of cell phone users in Africa. The Libyan government owns the country's two mobile phone operators.

Going Dark. Egypt disappears from the Internet. Jan.27.

At 5:20 p.m. EST, traffic to and from Egypt across 80 Internet providers world-wide dropped.

Egypt Shuts Down Internet, Cellphone Services (29th January 2011)

In the face of mounting political unrest, Egypt took the unprecedented step of severing all Internet connections and shutting down its cellphone services - with the cooperation of international firms.

Egyptian authorities asked mobile operators to "turn down the network totally," said Vittorio Colao, chief executive of U.K.-based Vodafone Group PLC, which owns 55% of Egypt's largest carrier, Vodafone Egypt.

Mr. Colao, speaking Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said the request was legitimate under Egyptian law, but he hoped the government would reverse course soon.

Many of the mobile operators in Egypt, including Vodafone, rely on Telecom Egypt, the incumbent national fixed-line provider, to carry parts of their service. Telecom Egypt is majority owned by the government.

Egypt has dozens of Internet providers, but they rely primarily on five large carriers, including Telecom Egypt, for Internet connectivity.

Starting at 10:12 p.m. local time on Thursday night, Telecom Egypt went dark, followed by the four remaining main carriers over the next 13 minutes, said Jim Cowie, chief technology officer of Renesys Corp., a network security firm in Manchester, N.H. By 10:25 p.m., the country no longer existed on the Internet, he said.

Other countries attempting to undermine or contain political uprisings in recent years - from Myanmar in 2007 to Iran and China in 2009 - have also clamped down on Internet access and cellphone use.

But Egypt's crackdown appears unique in both scale and synchronization, particularly for a country with such an advanced infrastructure with so many providers, according to Internet security experts.

"What's shocking about this is that they didn't just take down a certain domain name or block a website-they took the whole Internet down," said Mr. Cowie.

France Telecom SA, which operates a venture in Egypt with its local partner Orascom Telecom, said Egyptian authorities "had taken measures" to cut off its mobile and Internet services in the country, provided through its subsidiary called Mobinil.

In Iran, following the contested 2009 presidential elections that prompted wide-scale demonstrations organized in part through social-media websites like Twitter and Facebook, the government filtered and censored the Internet, but still allowed it to function - albeit very slowly. In the same year, Chinese authorities shut down Internet access amidst riots, but that was just for one province.

During protests in Myanmar in 2007, authorities shut down the Internet, but the country's connectivity was meager to begin with, and protestors were still able to get photos out of the country through cellphones.

While Egypt severed all of its cellphone and Internet connections, fixed lines were working Friday, one of the few means, beyond satellite phone and ham radio, to reach the country.

Some organizations that had compiled tweets and Facebook posts in past conflicts concluded they had to rely on the old-fashioned telephone to get word out and in.

"Last night we said, the Internet is gone - so let's just start calling people we know," said Jillian York, with citizen-journalism group Global Voices Online, which is posting reports based on those calls on a website hosted outside of Egypt. "In this case, the phone is the social media."

Facebook saw a "substantial drop" in Egyptian traffic Thursday, and as of Friday saw only minimal use, a Facebook Inc. executive said. A Google Inc. spokesman said people in Egypt largely cannot access Google sites including YouTube, which has been used to share videos of demonstrations.

Network security experts Friday said they detected some minor Web activity, from a few institutions including the Egyptian stock exchange, some companies and government ministries, but an estimated 93% of the country's networks remained unreachable.

The action is surprising given both the vibrancy of the Internet culture within the country, and Egypt's growing role as a regional hub for global connectivity. The country of 80.5 million people had about 65.5 million cellphone subscribers in October, according to a government report. It has among the highest rates of Internet penetration among consumers in Africa, with 21%, according to internetworldstats.com.

Perhaps more important, Egypt in recent years has positioned itself as the main conduit for regional connections to the world. Eight major undersea fiber links now run through the Red Sea and across the Sinai Peninsula, connecting the region to more developed links in Europe, and from there to the rest of the world. Three of those were built in the past two years, and another three are planned for this year, according to Telegeography, an Internet research firm.

"Egypt is now a major Internet crossing point for Africa and the Middle East," said Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks Inc., an Internet security company in Ann Arbor, Mich. "So unlike other countries in the region where this might happen, this is much more of an event."

He said the global links passing through the country handling traffic not related to Egypt appeared unaffected.

Cell phone operator Vodafone said that the Egyptian authorities forced it to send text messages in support of President Hosni Mubarak during the past ten days of anti-government protests. (4th February 2011)

Egyptian government intrudes on mobile operators (4th February 2011)

Vodafone Group PLC and France Télécom SA, facing heat for complying with the Egyptian government's order to pull the plug on their networks last week, said Thursday that Egypt's government forced its way onto their mobile networks to send text messages directly to the country's people.

U.K.-based Vodafone said the government invoked emergency powers under Egypt's Telecom Act to send the text messages against the company's will. Vodafone, which runs Egypt's biggest mobile carrier by customers through a joint venture with state-controlled Telecom Egypt, said it protested the action and "made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator."

France Télécom, which runs mobile carrier Mobinil in a joint venture with Orascom Telecom Holding, said the Egyptian army forced it to send texts to its customers, though it said the only army-endorsed messages processed by Mobini concerned "national security and general safety."

Vodafone said the text-messaging capability of it and other mobile operators in Egypt has been shut down since mass protests began late last week. But Egyptian authorities appear to have opened the networks briefly at times to send pro-government texts.

The messages appeared to be nonthreatening in nature. One Mobinil subscriber received the following text on Tuesday: "Egyptian youth beware of rumors and listen to the voice of reason. Egypt is above everyone so protect it."

The situation has exposed the vulnerability of multinational companies like Vodafone and France Télécom as they pursue growth in developing markets rife with political instability.

Big companies usually carry out risk assessments before making significant investments in volatile regions, but political risks rarely fit cleanly into a simple analytical or numerical model, said Steven Haynes, director of corporate intelligence at KPMG LLP.

Vodafone entered Egypt in the late 1990s and India in 2007, pleasing many investors by seeking growth opportunities outside the European market. Now, the political risks in both countries have turned ugly: Vodafone has taken billions in write-downs on its India investment, in part due to regulatory issues and a costly tax dispute with the government. In Egypt, the company is scrambling to protect its infrastructure and employees while delivering the Egyptian army's messages.

"When armed police arrive at your offices there is not much one can do," France Télécom Chief Executive Stephane Richard said on the sidelines of a press conference Thursday, when asked about last week's decision to sever access to all of its services. Mr. Richard said a clause in the company's Egyptian mobile-phone license allows the government to shut down mobile services in the country.

Earlier this week, Vodafone said in a statement that there were "no legal or practical options" open but to comply with the demand to shut off its mobile services.

Both carriers registered their dissatisfaction with the pro-government texts on Thursday. "France Télécom strongly disapproves of any message of a political nature that runs against the neutrality principle which defines our role as a network operator," the company said in a statement. Vodafone said it had "protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable."

Vittorio Colao, Vodafone's CEO, said his company would restore text-messaging services in Egypt when it was authorized. "We are in a continuous battle with the government on our services, on keeping our services up," Mr. Colao said on a conference call Thursday. He said the company was focusing on restoring normality.

The Egyptian text-messaging shutdown is the latest example of the tension between Western technology and telecom giants and some governments in emerging markets.

Research In Motion Ltd. has been under pressure from several governments, especially in the Middle East and Asia, to provide access to the secure networks used by its popular Blackberry device. Last year's decision by Google Inc. to leave China because of search-engine censorship marked a rare case of a multinational company forsaking a business opportunity because of political factors.

Telecom companies face particularly acute risks when dealing with governments in countries where they rely on state-owned infrastructure or state-awarded spectrum contracts for their business. In Egypt, operators often depend on Telecom Egypt's fixed-line infrastructure to carry their mobile services. They also usually employ hundreds of people.

"What is happening in Egypt just goes to show the leverage that governments have over telecom providers," said Cynthia Wong, the director of the Global Internet Freedom project at the Center of Democracy and Technology in Washington. "They can get these companies to do what they want because of the number of employees in the country and the amount of infrastructure in place."

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard University, said it would be a lot to ask a company like Vodafone to actively resist the Egyptian government's requests, especially when there may be engineers on the ground in Egypt who could be arrested or harassed.

But the Egyptian text messages speak to a more serious quandary mobile operators might face under similar circumstances. "A larger question is what a company should do when the messages are not general exhortations to support the regime but active disinformation designed to confuse or unfairly tarnish an opposition in the heat of a moment," he said.

 

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