Egypt Restores Internet as Turmoil Escalates

By Cecilia Kang for The Washington Post

Egypt restored Internet access on Wednesday, after a one-week blackout for Web and cell phone users to try to stem civil unrest.

The nation was the second ever to completely shut its citizens off of the Internet. Burma made a similar move in 1997. As the turmoil accelerates, experts say, the move has failed to affect what began as a Web campaign but continued even after the government block.

As of about 11:29 a.m. Cairo time, all major Egyptian Internet service providers appeared to have reopened connection to their domestic customer networks in a global routing table, network expert Renesys Group said in a blog.

Web sites such as the Egyptian State Information Service have been restored. The Wall Street Journal reports that cell phone service MobiNil also is back up.

U.S. Web sites such as social network Facebook were available again to Egyptians.

“We’re pleased that Internet service has been restored and the five million people who use Facebook in Egypt can continue using our service to connect, learn, and share,” said Andrew Noyes, spokesman for Facebook.

The restoration comes as opposition groups and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak have clashed in street confrontations Wednesday. Mubarak said he would not seek reelection, but anti-government protesters have called for him to step down immediately.

“One of big questions is does it work for a government to shut off the network entirely? I think the answer is no,” said John Palfrey, a co-director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Alaa Abd El Fattah, an Egyptian activist and blogger in South Africa, said at first people organized on social media sites such as the Facebook page “We are Khaled Said.” The page documented the brutal death of a Egyptian blogger who exposed police corruption. There, opposition groups organized initial demonstrations. But predicting a clampdown on networks, Fattah said that anti-government activists, many of whom were young and politically engaged for the first time, switched to proxy technology that would allow them to access the Internet without being identified. They used low-end Nokia phones with Opera browser, which automatically serves as a proxy for users. And they passed along demonstration plans with pamphlets and by word of mouth.

“This movement started online but continued through many other avenues,” said Fattah.

Andrew McLaughlin, former White House deputy chief technology officer, said the shutdown shocked nations who had seen Egypt as a proponent of mobile and Internet technology. It serves as a key regional hub that operates several critical underwater fiber cable systems used for communications for many neighboring nations.

“The implications of shutting down the Internet are huge from an economic point of view,” McLaughlin said. “The idea that transportation grid ground to halt, you couldn’t access your bank or move money around and the entire communications systems was shut down is insane.”

Rejoicing at being given a digital voice again, Egyptians burst back onto the Internet. On Twitter, human rights activist Dalia Ziada wrote that she had over 500 e-mails in her e-mail.

Numerous accounts on Twitter also show that social the networking site and others may still be blocked in Egypt. When the government began to target communications services, they first hit Twitter and Facebook on Jan. 25. Two days later, the Egyptian government, with an Internet adoption rate of about 30 percent, entirely shut down access. Cell phone services were blocked intermittently throughout the last week.

Reports from Twitter indicate that 3G, mobile Web and BlackBerry services are online again for some people. Vodafone Egypt, which released a statement about restoring mobile phone service on Jan. 31, has not commented on its mobile Web service.

With the service restored, Egyptians began to give personal reports of clashes between Mubarak supporters and dissenters, which turned violent in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

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