Accessing The Internet From Egypt

Egypt is now its fourth day with virtually no Internet access. The government cut off access to the Internet last week to try to disrupt the planned protests against the government. And while the shutdown has left most Egyptians blocked from the Web, there are a few who, with a little creativity, are getting back online. Michele Norris talks with Danny O'Brien, Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, about accessing the Internet from Egypt.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin All Tech Considered today, looking at communication in Egypt.

Late last week, the Egyptian government shut down almost all Internet access in the country as it tried to slow the growing protest movement. And while online traffic in Egypt slowed to a crawl, it has not stopped entirely. Egyptians have come up with some creative ways to get online and to get their messages out.

For more on this, I'm joined by Danny O'Brien. He's Internet advocacy coordinator for the Community to Protect Journalists and he's based in San Francisco. Mr. O'Brien, thanks for being with us.

Mr. DANNY O'BRIEN (Internet Advocacy Coordinator, Community to Protect Journalists): Thank you.

NORRIS: I want to start with how this was done. I'm curious about this. Is there some big red switch somewhere that the Egyptian government flipped and it instantly turned off the Internet?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, it certainly looked that way. I was actually online with some contacts in communication with people in Egypt, and we watched Egypt disappear off the net pretty much instantaneously. I think in order to do that on an Internet infrastructure that has a lot of different working parts in it, a lot of different people would have to turn off their systems pretty much at the same time to make that effective.

NORRIS: So, how would you do that?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, the way the Internet works is that scattered right across the network are a bunch of machines that have, as it were, a sort of index to all the destinations that a packet of data can go to. And what the majority of Egypt's Internet service providers did was simply withdraw their entries in that index simultaneously. So, suddenly, for all intents and purposes in the rest of the world, Egypt just stopped existing on the Internet.

NORRIS: But that didn't stop the messages coming out of Egypt. People were still figuring out how to get messages out. How were they able to find back doors?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, it's not been very long since we left the dial-up age. And for a lot of Egyptians right now, they dug out their old modems and they started to connect to dialing old style ISP phone numbers. And people started offering around the world. So essentially people are calling out to places like Italy, the United States, United Kingdom so that they can connect to the Internet there.

NORRIS: Have there been similar shutdowns of the Internet in other countries -China, Iran, elsewhere?

Mr. O'BRIEN: There have been shutdowns of countries where they've disappeared like this. Usually, it's either been an accident, a cable snapped. Or in the case of Burma, Burma did disappear off the net. But that was in 2007. And Burma at the time was certainly not as well connected and as much of an economic powerhouse as Egypt.

I think the really significant thing here is that Egypt was a very strongly connected country with a great deal of economic interest in keeping the Internet up. Other countries like Iran and China really have not gone this far because of the damaging ramifications to the rest of their economy.

NORRIS: You know, beyond people digging out their modems, I'm wondering if there was a wholesale turn or a greater interest suddenly in old technology, people using ham radios or things like that.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yes, there was. I think this is largely from the outside world wanting to help. Ham radio has always been a fallback system in the event of natural disasters and many, many ham radio enthusiasts around the world came up to help and to offer yet another way of getting information out of the country.

There's not a very large number of Egyptian ham radio operators. However, many of them were not surprisingly out in the streets rather than right on their radios.

NORRIS: Danny O'Brien, thank you very much.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Danny O'Brien is the Internet advocacy coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He spoke with us from San Francisco.

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