The Egyptian government ordered a digital crackdown Friday in an effort to quell protesters, shutting down internet access and cellphone services, but some Egyptians are still finding ways to connect with others.
"This is certainly not unprecedented in type, but it is unique in scope and size," said Ron Deibert, director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.
Many countries monitor and filter their citizens' communications and online activities. But Egypt's decision to simply cut its people off from the internet in an attempt to keep protesters from organizing underlines how worried some governments are about the threat the internet and social media can pose to them.
State internet crackdowns on the rise
The king of Nepal disabled all internet and phone connections in 2005 to prevent rebellious movements from organizing against him, for example. Similarly, during the 2007 Burmese election, access to the internet was cut in an attempt to limit information regarding pro-democracy protests.
"If you step back, these type of controls are generally growing in scope, scale and sophistication," said Deibert, who says his research team has identified at least 40 countries that engage in some form of internet filtering.
More on Egypt uprising
However, Deibert says that while Egypt's move is extreme, it hasn't been entirely effective. The resilience of the Egyptian protesters is evident as they turn to less obvious solutions to reconnect to the outside world.
"Cyberspace is so immersive today; there is always a way for determined people to get communications out," said Deibert.
Researchers at the Citizen Lab have found that roughly 88 per cent of Egyptian networks are disabled, and the remaining ones are responding to remote connection tests. Savvy Egyptians are using rudimentary dial-up connections to access these networks through old, unused ports to maintain an online presence.
Activists have also begun smuggling satellite phones into the country and have gone so far as to establish an independent "mesh" of connections, forming what Deibert called an "essentially an autonomous internet, not routed through the Egyptian network."
International online support has been quick to mobilize in recent incidents in which free speech was threatened. Remote proxy servers — including some in Canada — were established that mask users’ locations to help Iranian citizens bypass an internet block during last year’s elections, for example.
However, proxy technology is used to thwart web censorship and specific site blockages and has no practical application to a system infrastructure blackout. The rarity of the situation in Egypt is what has pushed protesters and international supporters to come up with more creative solutions.
"Proxies work best when your government blocks some websites but not all of them," said Bennett Hasleton, founder of Peacefire.org – a website that provides filter circumvention technology and information.
'The individuals who make up cyberspace have come together.' — Bennett Hasleton, founder of Peacefire.org
"The Egyptian government won’t keep the block up forever," added Hasleton. "When they eventually go back online, it will likely be with some kind of filter."
Deibert says the international online community is watching the situation in Egypt with keen interest. When the opportunity presents itself, activists like Hasleton will provide the Egyptian people with the necessary tools to overcome the obstacles blocking their access to the internet.
"A lot of people are interested in solidarity with the Egyptian people based on democratic aspirations; others see this is a challenge," said Deibert. "You are seeing a self-repairing mechanism where the individuals who make up cyberspace have come together."