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How Did Egypt’s Government Halt Internet Access?

February 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks with The New York Times' James Glanz and Georgetown University's Michael Nelson about the logistics and motives behind the Egyptian government's Internet blackout during the political uprising.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now is one of the co-authors of today’s Times story, James Glanz. Also with me here in our studio is Michael Nelson, visiting professor of — at Georgetown University. He’s served in the past as director of Internet technology and strategy at IBM and worked on technology policy in the Clinton White House and at the FCC.

James Glanz, you wrote in your story the Egyptian government commanded powerful instruments of control. It owns the pipelines that carry information across the country and out into the world.

So, in layman’s terms, what are those pipelines and wgohat exactly did the government do to shut them down?

JAMES GLANZ, The New York Times: Well usually we think of the Internet as being everywhere and nowhere, something you can connect to no matter where you are and something that routes around damage.

But when you control the pipelines, you can actually shut the Internet down, particularly if there are very few of those pipelines. And in Egypt, it was sort of the revenge of the plumbers, if you will. There were very few portals to the outside world. The government, through its state-owned company, as you said, Telecom Egypt, controlled those portals, and by shutting them down, they severed Egypt from the international Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as you wrote, much of the traffic there in and out of Egypt was centered in one building in Cairo.

JAMES GLANZ: Twenty-six Ramses Street. You can call it up on Google Earth.


JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael Nelson, on Monday night’s program, our viewers know we looked at the Internet and social media as a tool of the opposition, of the protesters. This is the flip side, isn’t it?

MICHAEL NELSON, Georgetown University: Right. It’s a way for the government to close down the coordination that was going on online.

But paradoxically, it seems to have had just the opposite effect. Many of the people who were online, sharing their ideas and debating what is to be done, got mad enough at the government to get out on the streets, so they had even more people mobilized, because the Internet wasn’t there for them as a safety valve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have we ever seen anything like this on such a scale, where the…

MICHAEL NELSON: This is unprecedented in size. Nepal cut off the Internet for a few days at one point. Burma certainly closed down the Internet. But we had 20 million people online in Egypt, 4 million Facebook users, and an economy that was incredibly dependent on the Internet. A lot of the tourism industry uses the Internet for booking tours and hotels.

All that came to a stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, James Glanz, just to continue the explanation here, there — you mentioned the state-owned company, telecom company, but there are private telecom carriers involved as well, right? And one, Vodafone, apparently resisted the government’s request at first.

Tell us about that.

JAMES GLANZ: Yes, that’s right.

Ultimately, this was a sort of a one-two punch. First, the government shut down the portals to the outside world, so that cut off the international traffic. And then it turns out that the Internet inside Egypt depends on a lot of information from the outside world.

You might try to send a Gmail message to your neighbor, but that information has to go to California to a server there and come back. If it can’t do that, the e-mail won’t be sent. And so you had a collapse of the Internet inside Egypt. At the same time, the commercial carriers were called on the carpet, told to shut down.

And we understand that at least one, Vodafone, which is based in London, resisted and was told, basically, if you don’t do this, we’ll do it for you. And what they meant was, your signals go over Telecom Egypt lines, and we’ll simply cut those lines.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Michael Nelson, it’s still counterintuitive for most of us, I guess, from what we — was this easier to do than experts thought? Even in James Glanz’s piece, you have all these experts still trying to figure out exactly how they did it.

MICHAEL NELSON: Well, the story in Egypt is very different than in the United States or a European country. The Internet really is designed so that no one’s in charge and everyone’s in charge. There’s tens of thousands of subnetworks.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the story we always hear. But, apparently, somebody was in charge in Egypt, right?

MICHAEL NELSON: But, in Egypt, the Internet is built on top of the old telephone architecture. So, it’s much more centralized.

It’s in a way like the U.S. was in 1990. In the U.S., there were just a few places that connected internationally. And if you wanted to cut off the Internet in the U.S. in 1990, you could have. Today, there are thousands of international connections out of the U.S.

But in Egypt, there were just 10 Internet service providers. They were all using the same telecommunication network connections. And thus it was very easy for the government to go and — and pressure those handful of companies and turn off the Net.

JEFFREY BROWN: And compare this to what we have seen in other countries. We have talked a lot on this program about what’s happened in China. We have looked at Iran. We just heard reports about now we’re in Bahrain and in Libya, where governments might be looking at stuff like this.

But what’s happened — in those countries, it was a sort of modified or slightly lesser version — in China, for example.

MICHAEL NELSON: Well, China has designed their networks so that they can control the international connections. There’s something called the great firewall of China. And they are able to track all the bits going in and out of the country. They do have the challenge of monitoring 400 million users.

And so it’s not perfect by any means. But they’re much more sophisticated in what they’ve done. Their goal is to really block certain types of content. They also understand the huge economic implications of cutting off the Internet like the Egyptians did and that…

JEFFREY BROWN: Economic implications?

MICHAEL NELSON: The implications — that would be just catastrophic for the Chinese economy.

So, they’ve developed this huge infrastructure, with tens of thousands of people, tens of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, to make sure that they can monitor the traffic in a much more granular way, so that they can block specific websites.

There’s even — the next step is to get even more specific and start targeting specific users, so they will be able to block what particular users are doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Glanz, what would you add to that, comparing what — what you looked at in Egypt to — to what other countries are doing, especially other countries in the Middle East?


Well, everything you just said is true, but it’s always going to be the case that the Internet information still has to cross in these grand exchanges, whose number is smaller than you might think, even in the United States. There has been some thought to how sensitive the United States would be to about 20 phone calls. It’s an open question.

But, in other countries in the Middle East, it’s very important to realize that this architecture, where there’s one dominant carrier, often with one or two fiberoptic cables coming out of the Mediterranean or the Red Sea to provide international connectivity to these countries, they could also be pretty easy to shut down.

And either — there’s a fear at the State Department and elsewhere that either — that countries now are studying what happened in Egypt or may already have their own plans in place to carry out a similar operation. We’re seeing Internet slowdowns right now in Bahrain as the protests go on and reports of the same in Iran.

We’re not really sure whether that’s related to this type of control or attempt to assert this kind of control, but raising new concerns.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, there are — I mean, there — there are sophisticated people on the other side, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: So, is this inevitably a kind of cat-and-mouse game as technology develops?


And, in most of these countries, the governments can block access for 90 percent or 95 percent of the Internet users. But the remaining 5 percent or 10 percent are technologically sophisticated enough, they have various tools that if the Net — if the Net is not completely brought down, like it was in Egypt, people can get videos uploaded to other countries. They can share information.

But what’s interesting is what we have seen in Iran and, to some extent, in China, where instead of trying to just block everything, they’re trying to generate their own content. They’re trying to flood the zone, provide a lot of their own content that’s pro-government. They’re trying to put out messages like they did in Egypt over the cell phone network, telling people that everything’s fine, just go home, you know, we’ll take care of everything.

So, there’s this — this propaganda war that’s using the Internet, rather than just trying to block the Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Michael Nelson, James Glanz, thank you both very much.

JAMES GLANZ: Pleasure.