The attempt by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to stop anti-government protests by shutting down the internet and mobile phone services failed to stop the popular uprising that forced the dictator out on February 11.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Egypt on January 25 demanding political reform and an end to police brutality. When 24 hours passed and they hadn’t dispersed, Mubarak shut down access to media and telecommunications.
Access to the internet and mobile phone networks was denied. Foreign journalists were arrested, including the British Guardian’s Jack Shenker.
On January 26, social media site Twitter released a statement saying: “We can confirm that Twitter was blocked in Egypt around 8am PT today. It is impacting both Twitter.com & applications.”
On January 27, the Wall Street Journal said five of Egypt’s largest internet providers had been shut down. Jim Cowie, chief technology officer at internet monitoring company Renesys Corp, said: “The country no longer existed on the internet.”
Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat were ordered to block mobile phone networks in parts of Egypt on January 28. Services were not resumed for several days, WirelessFederation.com said on January 31.
In a statement on the Vodafone Egypt website on February 3, the company admitted it sent messages from the government to its subscribers.
“Under the emergency powers provisions of the Telecoms Act, the Egyptian authorities can instruct the mobile networks of Mobinil, Etisalat and Vodafone to send messages to the people of Egypt,” the company said.
Vodafone insisted it had no “legal or practical options” to defy the demands of authorities. Nonetheless, the company was criticised for its complicity and has faced a social media campaign calling for a global Vodafone boycott.
To help Egyptians stay online, digital freedom advocacy group Access Now ran a campaign on AccessNow.org setting out several ways those outside the country could help Egyptians “jump their government’s firewalls and anonymously access these online and mobile communications platforms”.
The Egypt censorship prompted Access Now to launch a campaign against governments seeking to grant themselves the power to turn the internet off. Such an “internet kill switch”, AccessNow.org said, is “a very real threat to all of us who use the internet around the world”.
“Egypt used it last week, Austria’s already got it, the U.S. has a law drafted to establish it.”
The Egyptian government used a provision in its constitution, which allows “a limited censorship” in a “state of emergency or in time of war”, to shut down ISPs.
A January 31 SMH.com.au article said a US senate committee was examining a bill to give similar powers to the US president.
The article said the bill “would grant US President Barack Obama powers to seize control of and even shut down the internet” in times of an emergency.
Mubarak’s efforts proved futile in stemming the popular uprising. The masses were already on the streets and the blackout proved more of an obstruction for those trying to follow the events from outside Egypt.
Amr Gharbeia, who had been protesting in Tahrir Square since January 25, told BBC.co.uk on February 7 that while the revolution was sparked by “someone sending a Facebook invitation to many people”, the protests were maintained without social media.
A Facebook group called “We are all Khaled Said” has been widely credited as playing a key role in organising young Egyptians to take part in the January 25 protests. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old man who was beaten to death by Egyptian police last year.
The creator of the Facebook page, now known to be Google executive Wael Ghonim, was captured by state security during the demonstrations.
Speaking to Dream TV on February 7 after his release, Ghonim said: “This revolution belonged to the internet youth, then the revolution belonged to the Egyptian youth, then the revolution belonged to all of Egypt.”
Gharbeia told BBC.co.uk: “I like to think the social network is the people itself.
“Things like Facebook, Twitter, SMS and phones are just social tools. When they blocked Facebook and shut down technology, our network still operated because it’s about people.”