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How Egypt Turned Off the Internet

The Internet is all around us–on our cell phones, our computers, even in the dashboards of our cars. It seems impossible that such a mammoth presence can just be shut off. Turns out, it’s pretty easy.

How Egypt Turned Off the Internet

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The Internet is all around us–on our cell phones, our computers, even in the dashboards of our cars. It seems impossible that such a mammoth presence can just be shut off. But that’s exactly what the Egyptian government did this week as a reaction to political uprising in the country. How did this happen?

Turns out, it’s pretty easy, at least in Egypt. “At the end of the day, the Internet is a bunch of cables in dimly lit,
pretty chilly rooms. A country like Egypt probably has a dozen of these,” explains Craig Labovitz, chief scientist for Arbor Networks, an Internet security company. “It’s as simple as literally unplugging these devices. From a practical standpoint, it’s
more likely a phone call and then making a few changes on the computer to change
the configuration.”

It’s simple to make these changes in the country because there are only 10 Internet providers and a centralized government that can quickly order them to yank out the cables. If the providers refuse, they can lose their licenses from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Egypt to restore communications, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated the U.S. position that access to the Internet is a “basic human right.”

Congress has contemplated implementing an Internet “kill switch” at home, for use in emergencies., but it would be more complicated to effect that here, or in Western Europe, where there are more fiber-optic cables and thousands of providers. But Egypt has one of the more sophisticated Internet set-ups in the region. In other words, shutting down the Internet is easy in most places around the world. And while it may be difficult to turn off Internet access in the U.S. and Europe, there’s still plenty of collateral damage when a country that plays a significant role in commerce and trade–like Egypt–chooses to do so.

But ultimately, Labovitz says, “It’s like programming your VCR–adding a few numbers here, deleting a few numbers there. There’s no big red switch, it’s not very dramatic.”

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[Image: Al Jazeera English on Flickr]

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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