Updated at 11:43 a.m. on January 28.
Egyptian officials apparently took the unprecedented step of shutting down all Internet access across the country in response to growing civil unrest, according to reports from inside Egypt as well as international technology analysts.
Just after midnight in Egypt, analysts at the U.S.-based Internet intelligence firm Renesys observed the “virtually simultaneous” withdrawal of all Internet access to the country.
“The Egyptian government's actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map,” said Renesys’s James Cowie on a company blog.
Reports indicate that other forms of mass communication, including mobile phones and text messaging, have also been shut down, although the government-owned landline networks appear to still be working, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Posting on Twitter this morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs expressed concern about the violence in Egypt, then said the “government must respect the rights of the Egyptian people & turn on social networking and Internet.”
Egypt’s crackdown is the latest and most severe in a series of efforts to control communications by governments around the globe.
“This is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow,” Cowie said.
The fact that Egypt shut down all access, as opposed to more subtle manipulation as seen in countries such as China and Iran, may be an indication that the country did not have the capability to limit access in a more nuanced way, said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.
Regardless of how the country limits Internet freedom, Egypt’s actions signal an alarming increase in the willingness of governments to restrict communication and access to information, Black said.
“The sweeping nature of this action, and from a country that’s supposed to be close to us, should be a warning,” he told National Journal. Beyond the political repercussions, Black said, Egypt’s drastic action could be devastating economically.
In a speech on January 21, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support for international rules to protect Internet connectivity.
“[Freedom] is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution,” she said. “Blogs, e-mails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas and created new targets for censorship.”