As I See It: The Digital Uprising
February 21, 2011 Victor Rozek
These days it’s getting harder to find a restaurant that doesn’t play music loud enough to wilt your lettuce. And if you find one without music, chances are you’ll be eating surrounded by a flock of wall-mounted televisions. Not to be outdone, some eateries feature both: music, as an incongruous accompaniment to muted TVs. Most of the time I just tune it all out, but the other day the combination of violent images and soothing music made for a surreal experience.
There was Harry Connick, Jr., with a voice like melted caramel, singing the classic Irving Berlin ballad What’ll I Do? while on a silent TV screen the musical question was being answered by defiant Egyptians on behalf of Hosni Mubarak.
Equally surreal were the signs Egyptians were waving which, along with freedom, demanded the restoration of the Internet. Protestors understood that their revolution was getting a power-assist from technology, and they were claiming access to the Internet as their right. On the hot, dusty streets of Cairo, the idealistic hopes of Internet visionaries were coming true: empowering the disenfranchised could lead to democracy. For Egyptian authorities, the eventual outcome of an organized, interconnected populace was manifest. They responded by doing what dictatorships reflexively do–they attacked their people. But they also did something unprecedented, on a scale previously unseen–they attacked the Internet.
China, Iran, and others had previously blocked domain names, shut down specific Web sites and small networks yearning to be free. Even in the U.S., dissident activity is routinely tracked on the Web. But for the first time, the Internet and social networks became threatening enough to warrant a near-complete shutdown. How it was accomplished is both cautionary and instructive.
On January 27 just after midnight, each of Egypt’s five major ISPs went down in an orderly sequence about three minutes apart. In a little over 15 minutes, 93 percent of the nation’s Internet capacity vanished, with one notable exception. The Noor Group, which supports the Egyptian stock market (and therefore the interests of the monied oligarchy), maintained its Internet presence.
Renesys Corporation is a New Hampshire-based network security firm that monitors the global Internet infrastructure. Engineers at Renesys track what is knows as the “global routing table” which contains all of the address prefixes that make up the Internet. In an interview with Scientific American, chief technology officer and co-founder Jim Cowie explained: “ISPs keep this information in their routers. When they need to send traffic to a place, they look up the address to figure out where to send it.” But on the morning of the January 27, “we observed hundreds of providers all over the world suddenly telling us that most of the network addresses in Egypt no longer existed.”
Because of the staggered shutdown, Cowie speculated that the ISPs were most likely coerced. If a “kill switch” had been available, Egypt’s entire Web would have instantly gone dark. Cowie posits that the shutdown was the result of a series of threatening phone calls. “. . . somebody from the government calls up all their license-holders–all of these regulated ISPs, telecommunications companies, mobile service providers–and just has a conversation with them that says, ‘Turn it off.’ The managers of those companies go to their engineers, point to their Internet routers and relay the message, ‘Turn it off.’ The engineers log into those routers, make one or two lines of configuration change and hit ‘return’ on the keyboard. Thirty seconds later, it’s done.”
Similar calls must have been made to Vodafone, the Egyptian arm of a London-based global telecommunications company, that first agreed to broadcast anonymous, pro-government text messages, then complained about it later. The messages were fairly unimaginative and heavy-handed, so I offer this Americanized version for Mubarak’s future reference: “Your revolution is very important to us. For a comprehensive list of why poverty and violent repression are good for you, press 2 now.”
Like many rash acts, taking down the Internet had unintended consequences. Instantly, Egypt’s business community, particularly international high-tech firms, lost the ability to efficiently communicate with the rest of the world. The government may have been initially interested in shuttering social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which were widely used by protestors to plan and execute demonstrations. But the week-long interruption of Internet service is estimated to have cost Egypt over $100 million. On the other hand, maintaining Internet access for the stock market made little difference. The unrest alone precipitated a 16 percent plunge in the market, and early losses are estimated in the $50 billion range.
Egypt’s experience is both instructive and timely because the desire to control the Internet has infected our shores. Cowie thinks government intimidation wouldn’t work here. “It probably wouldn’t be possible,” he says. “Most of the people you would call operate independent of the government and wouldn’t even listen to you.” But that argument betrays a remarkably short memory. Just a few years ago, most of the major telecommunications companies fell right in line when the Bush administration asked for their cooperation in spying on American citizens. But what if future requests were not only coercive but backed by the force of law?
Given the monumental failure of Egypt’s attempt to subdue the Internet, one would have to question the wisdom of replicating it here. But winding its way through the Senate is the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset” act, which is Senator Joe Lieberman’s attempt to give the president a legal “kill switch” to shut down part or all of the Internet in case of “national emergency.”
Bait-and-switch has been the essence of Lieberman’s political career, and it also applies to his legislation. Under the proposed bill, broadband providers, search engines, and software firms would be obligated to “immediately comply” in shutting down their operations. The bait is the threat of some doomsday worm or virus that could potentially trash countless computers. The switch is that it gives the government absolute power to define “national emergency.” As much as the government has lied to us about weapons of mass destruction, the need for war, and many, many other things in the recent past, one would have to be insane, or Joe Lieberman, to entrust it with power to crash portions or all of the Internet.
The ease with which Egyptian authorities were able to shut down the Web makes an emphatic case for breaking up communications monopolies. The more calls that have to be made, the more arms that have to be twisted, the less chance there is that authorities will succeed in bullying ISPs. Regardless, the strategy is so bankrupt one wonders why it is so often repeated: Suppression always creates the very radicalism it was designed to eliminate.
Although Egyptians have endured decades of cruelty, one of the blessings of Internet technology is that nothing need be endured in solitude. The fuse of the current unrest was lit by an act of savagery that could not be contained. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old businessman who died in June, murdered by the hated undercover police. His death so moved a young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, that he created a Facebook page and called it “We are all Khaled Said.” That page sparked months of protests, which grew in size and determination into a unique kind of revolution.
Ghonim, who himself was arrested and held for twelve days, clearly understood the forces of change sweeping across the region. He called Egypt’s uprising “the revolution of the youth of the Internet.” Dictators beware. History will note that after 18 days of protest, Mubarak resigned, the first despot to be brought down by broadband.