The Evolution of the Online Revolution and How the Egyptian Government Stopped It

Leslie Chong is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

As protests continued in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime had prepared to wage a cyber counter-attack in an attempt to forestall an imminent rally. As the authorities prepared themselves for a day of anticipated mass protest, the government made an unprecedented move that struck Egyptians (and the world) by surprise: it shut down the internet.

On January 27th 2011, internet monitoring organizations (such as Renesys) noted a marked decline in Egypt’s internet usage. Within a matter of minutes “virtually all routes to Egyptian networks were simultaneously withdrawn from the internet’s global routing table” and nearly 90% Egyptian internet access had been successfully shut down by the government. Largely dependent on four major internet service providers (ISPs), the government had successfully coerced Raya/Vodafone, Link Egypt, Etisalat Misr and Internet Egypt into shutting down their networks. Left without internet or text messaging services, Egyptian protesters were stripped of their ability to communicate and organize themselves effectively. As desperation and internet-withdrawal began to sink in, some protesters resorted to more rudimentary options, such as dial-up for internet access.

In this groundbreaking move, Egypt’s kibosh on the use of internet has been equated to the strict regulations in North Korea that expressly prohibit their citizens from accessing the Internet. Furthermore, many have wondered whether this has set a dangerous precedent for government use of ‘internet kill switches’ in times of economic or political unrest. Countries such as China have blocked the word “Egypt” from online searches about the government’s reactions to the protests – could this be their attempt to keep the nightmarish reality of a government’s power to strip its country of the internet at bay? Or are they fearful that their citizens may follow the Egyptian protesters’ lead in using the internet and social media to facilitate future protests of their own?

Days before the government had instructed Egyptian ISPs to withdraw their services, Egyptians had reportedly experienced difficulties accessing social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Despite the suspicions that the government had been behind this block, the government had blatantly denied these accusations citing their support for free speech. However, following the internet shutdown fiasco, it is clear that government had wanted to preemptively disarm protesters of the indispensable technological tools that social networking sites had become. Used by protesters to organize and orchestrate previous rallies, many had been using these social networking sites to garner support for their cause and to coordinate their events.

However, this belief that social networking sites and the internet are key to activism and revolutions are not supported by all. Prominent commentator Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has criticized the pedestal that social networking sites have been placed on. In his article, published even before the mass protests in Cairo, he questions whether social media activism is even as powerful or effective as some suggest. He finds that while many have argued that “The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism,” he argues that the civil-rights war had been undertaken largely “without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.” In response to his article, however, some have argued that social media and the internet serve as a venue for easy access to information and the ability to create communities based on interests, beliefs and shared values.

As of Wednesday, February 2nd 2011, internet service to Egypt had been restored, but the question about the importance of internet and social networking sites are left to linger. What impact would this internet shutdown have had on the ongoing protests in Egypt? Is it possible that social networking sites can serve to accelerate social change? What has become clear through the Egyptian government’s actions, however, is that to deprive a country of what has evolved to become a basic amenity and the cornerstone to free speech and access to information strikes at the core of our fundamental rights as citizens in a new technological age.