Egypt has gone offline.
In a stunning development unprecedented in the modern history of the Internet, a country of more than 80 million people has found itself almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the world.
The near-disconnection–at least one Internet provider is still online–comes after days of street protests demanding an end to nearly three decades of autocratic rule by President Hosni Mubarak. Those followed this month’s revolution in Tunisia, another country with little political freedom and high levels of corruption, and reports of overnight arrests and clashes with security forces.
Jim Cowie, chief technology officer at Internet-monitoring firm Renesys, said that at approximately 2:34 p.m. PT, his company “observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table.” (See CNET’s earlier coverage of network disruptions.)
“Virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide,” Cowie wrote in a blog post this evening.
A major service provider for Egypt, Italy-based Seabone, reported that there was no Internet traffic going into or out of the country after around 2:30 p.m. PT (12:30 a.m. local time), according to an Associated Press dispatch.
Al Jazeera English reported that the Mubarak government “denied disrupting communications networks” in advance of widespread protests planned at more than 30 mosques and churches on Friday, which is a day off in Egypt with banks and many businesses closed. (A spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C. also denied earlier reports that Facebook and Twitter were selectively blocked.)
While the cause of the disruption remains unknown, it seems clear that yanking Egypt’s Internet addresses was a conscious decision, not the result of a fiber cut or a natural disaster. That means Egypt will be conducting a high-profile experiment in what happens when a country with a $500 billion GDP, one that’s home to the pyramids and the Suez Canal, decides that Internet access should be restricted to a trickle.
That trickle can be found at the Noor Group, which appears to be the only Internet provider in Egypt that’s fully functioning. (Cairo-based bloggers are speculating that its unique status grows out of its client list, which includes western firms including ExxonMobil, Toyota, Hyatt, Nestle, Fedex, Coca-Cola, and Pfizer, plus the Egyptian stock exchange.)
An analysis posted by network analyst Andree Toonk, who runs a Web site devoted to monitoring networks, shows that yesterday there were 2,903 Egyptian networks publicly accessible via the Internet. Today, there are only 327 networks.
Noor is “the only provider that doesn’t seem to be impacted by this,” Toonk wrote.
That’s led Egyptian Internet users, at least the ones still connected, to go on Twitter to urge others to use Noor’s dial-up numbers if their own network was down.
Unconfirmed reports from Egypt suggested widespread telephone outages as well. Early in the morning in Cairo, a series of complaints of mobile phone outages said Mobinil, the country’s largest mobile provider, was no longer providing service. Other reports said only land lines were working. Complaints about SMS outages have become common.
There are some parallels. Wired magazine’s HotWired, succeeded by Wired.com, reported in 1996 that “the U.S. government has quietly pulled the plug on Iran’s Internet connection.” During a state of emergency in Bangladesh in 2007, satellite providers were ordered to cease airing any news shows. And in Burma later that year, the country’s ruling military junta pulled the plug on the nation’s limited Internet access.
Twitter and Facebook have become effective communications tools during social unrest and protests–in Iran and Moldova, along with Tunisia and Egypt, more recently. YouTube videos, too, have documented the massive street protests in Cairo.
Egypt’s Internet disruptions coincided with activist action. Anonymous, the group that launched distributed denial-of-service attacks on Web sites of financial institutions and others opposing WikiLeaks last year, released a video in which it threatened to launch DoS attacks on Egyptian government Web sites if the authorities did not curtail censorship efforts. Earlier today, five people were arrested in the U.K. in connection with those attacks.
The threats weren’t necessary. Egypt’s new firewall has brought down almost every entry on a list of the 25 most popular Web sites in the country, including egypt.gov.eg, presidency.gov,eg, and cabinet.gov.eg. The exceptions are ones like jeep.com.eg, which are hosted in the United States. The Web site for the U.S. Embassy in Egypt was unreachable.
In a YouTube interview today (see transcript), President Obama stressed that Mubarak has “been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues” and has “been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East.” Obama added, however, that political reform “is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt.”
Egypt receives over $1.3 billion annually from U.S. taxpayers in the form of military aid, according to the U.S. State Department.