Amid a growing protest movement that was using social networking sites to organize massive anti-government rallies, the regime of Hosni Mubarak simply switched off Internet and cell phone access for the vast majority of the country.
According to an AP report:
Egypt has apparently done what many technologists thought was unthinkable for any country with a major Internet economy: It unplugged itself entirely from the Internet to try and silence dissent.
According to a report in a British newspaper, up to 88 percent of Egyptian Internet access was shut down overnight. (The Egyptian Stock Exchange was one of the few spots in Egypt that remained online.)
A Massachusetts scientist interviewed by the AP said that in a nation like Egypt, cutting off the Internet would have been surprising easy:
Craig Labovitz, chief scientist for Arbor Networks, a Chelmsford, Mass., security company, said that in countries such as Egypt — with a centralized government and a relatively small number of fiber-optic cables and other ways for the Internet to get piped in — the companies that own the technologies are typically under strict licenses from the government.
"It's probably a phone call that goes out to half a dozen folks who enter a line on a router configuration file and hit return," Labovitz said. "It's like programming your TiVo — you have things that are set up and you delete one. It's not high-level programming."
The news from Egypt revives an ongoing debate about the Internet's often-contradictory role in democracy movements. On the one hand, the Egyptian's government's decision to muzzle the Internet in the wake of the recent Twitter-driven ouster of Tunisia's leader shows that governments like Mubarak's fear the Net's influence.
But, as Evgeny Morozov argued recently in The Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom, while the Internet may help dissidents organize, it has also provided new opportunities for governments to spy on — and, as today's news shows, disrupt — their opponents.
Globe photo: riot police in Egypt clash with protestors on Wednesday.