What would happen if the Internet was cut off for five days in a country? What if those five days witnessed the country’s biggest protests in 30 years? This is the situation 23 million Egyptian internet users - or more than a quarter of Egypt’s population - were left with on the night of 27 January 2011 and for five consecutive days.
The Internet connection was cut off two days after the protests erupted, in the largest and longest Internet blockade to date. Even Internet on mobile telephones was disconnected and Mobile voice and text services were severely disrupted. Yet, Egyptian activists -in and outside Egypt- found innovative ways to overcome the government control over free flow of information, as they frantically rushed to broadcast their efforts to topple the regime.
A few hours after the cut-off, French ISP called French Data Network offered free dial-up to Egyptians, which was circulated among Egyptians abroad. Luckily the landlines were not cut and the numbers were shared with those in Egypt. Soon after, activists connected from Egypt to the dial up service routed through other countries. Tor- a free internet anonymizer- was used to share their mobile photos and videos from the protests to the different media channels. ‘The key was not to be discovered by the government,’ says one activist.
Other more fortunate, used satellite connections. ‘Although Internet is completely blocked, I can open my email through satellite because we have special equipment. It is very slow, but at least it is functioning,’ said Sahar Talaat , an Egyptian reporter for radio RFI- espanol.
Another creative attempt to defy the Egyptian regime’s shut down of the Internet was -Speak2tweet - the first phone-to-twitter service. The service developed by four members working at Google and Twitter, allowed people to tweet by leaving a voice message at an international telephone number.
‘I thought of a way to allow Egyptians to continue tweeeting; since outgoing voice is the only thing working , [I] tried to get an Egyptian phone number to relay to outside’, says Abdel-Karim Mardini – an Egyptian working as Product Manager at Google and one of the developers of the service.
A day later, Google and Twitter claimed credit and officially announced the service a ‘Google-Twitter Initiative’. More interestingly, Arab and international activists started creating sister services. One service – AliveinEgypt - transcribed and translated the Arabic voices to English, French and Spanish was launched. Another - Stop404 - presented live news feed from tweets, including information about needed medical support for protesters.
Only two days after its launch, the Speak2tweet service had already gathered over two thousands tweets and more than thousands of followers from around the globe. But as censorship, wire tapping, and crackdowns are common practices in the Egyptian regime, the service has to be agile enough to adapt to developments on the ground. A number of alternative plans were placed in case the phone numbers were disrupted.
Going Back to Basics
As connections went down, activists and journalists in Egypt resorted to traditional ways of communication. Calling from landlines and sending faxes to share what’s happening with mainstream media and their counterparts abroad. ”The first statement made by the youth of 25Jan was read to us on phone by our activists at Tahrir square (where the main protests unfolded)’, said one Egyptian activist abroad.
In organising the following days of anti-government demonstrations,the protestors have also gone back to the good old means of communication: leaflets and word-of-mouth. At the different allies within Cairo streets, young men have been found sharing flyers and announcements to distribute about the following days of protests, at the time even SMS services were down.
Many more – learned about the locations of protests from television sattelite channels such as Aljazeera. The latter was soon banned to air by the Egyptian government, yet, continued reporting while constantly changed its airing wave lengths to enable people to watch the events.
Counter-Attack: Anonymous ‘Project Egypt’
At the pro-Egypt protests in London – I saw a handful of youth masked with Guy Fawkes , as well as, Egyptian-flag masks. It was not long before I realized they were members of the Anonymous Group. The group has been famous for hacking Mastercard, PayPal and Visa for cutting Wikileaks funding. ‘We do not forgive, we do not forget’, is there motto.
Even though the government did not announce any of its portals being down, a number of official sites were down during the cut off, including the official government newspaper Al-Ahram , and a few ministries portals. Although it is not clear yet whether the down sites were due to a hacking activity or other reasons, the group’s previous hacking of seven Tunisians government sites and and their ‘Egypt Project’ press release might suggest a connection.
What is remarkable in these above initiatives is solidarity among citizens from around the world to provide a counter-power to the state and corporate control over free information flow. The solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people during their protests is an interesting case of a universal grassroot efforts to shift or at least balance the power dynamics of information flow.
Putting Things in Perspective
Despite the different creative attempts to overcome the internet blockade, it is important to note that the scale and scope of internet access during the protests is still not clear. While the main few activists managed to get wired , the Internet connection remained a ‘blackout’ for millions across the cities of Egypt. Looking at social media activity such as Facebook and Twitter during the five days, it is apparent that more than 95% of users residing in Egypt were inactive.
Rigorous quantitative and qualitative studies would be useful to assess the real impact of Internet on the protests of Egypt, as well as, the impact of alternative measures to defying its shut. This will particularly be important before we get over-hyped about any other ‘Iranian twitter revolution’.
New York Times- 1 Feb 2011: New Service Lets Voices From Egypt Be Heard
Huffington Post -1 Feb 2011: Google Helps Egyptians Tweet Via Landline
Hypercities: Egypt: Voices from Cairo through Social media (Live Twitter Mapping of Egypt Protests)