Governments in other autocratic Middle East countries have tried to mirror Egypt's efforts to suppress the internet, hoping to make it more difficult for activists to organize anti-government protests.

One of the most fundamental characteristics of the internet is its vast global network of interconnected servers. If one path is blocked, the message can easily be rerouted. Redundancy is built in.

So computer experts were initially surprised when the Mubarak regime was able to so completely pull the plug on internet access for Egypt's 20 million online users. It didn't just block certain search terms or sites like Facebook — it was able to shut down the net for five days countrywide beginning in late January — the first time a state had been able to exercise such internet control.

Experts CBC News talked with say Egypt's net access was particularly vulnerable because the configuration of the net in authoritarian countries is typically much different than it is in more open societies.

"Typically, these countries have a state-controlled telecom, so much of the physical infrastructure is under the control of the government directly," says David Skillikorn, who teaches computer science and internet security at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Central control

Skillikorn said Telecom Egypt controls almost all internet traffic in the country, making it an easy job to shut off net access with just a few phone calls to the telecom's engineering staff. Canada, by contrast, has dozens of internet service providers.

Egypt is also connected to the net by a single bundle of fibre-optic cables. Other internet service providers lease space on those fibre-optic cables, the New York Times reported. Internet infrastructure in Western countries, on the other hand, typically consists of many different cable bundles as well as satellite relays.

While Western democratic governments are unlikely to reach for the internet "kill switch," it is within the realm of technical possibility.

"At the end of the day, it might not be the four phone calls it took in Egypt, but dozens and dozens," says Craig Labowitz, chief scientist at web security firm Arbor Networks. "There's still only a handful of providers that cover a majority of the population." 

Others try net suppression 

Governments in other autocratic Middle East countries have tried to mirror Egypt's efforts to suppress the internet — hoping to make it more difficult for activists to organize anti-government protests.

In Bahrain, where vocal anti-government protests have been held, internet service was described as being spotty on Wednesday. But authorities did not appear able or willing to try shutting down all internet access. Internet suppression efforts have also been noted in Iran.

In the end, Egypt's internet shutdown didn't succeed in quelling the protests, which steadily gathered steam despite the net blackout. If anything, activists said it drove net-savvy protesters into the streets.

Shutting down the net also cost the Egyptian economy millions of dollars.

With files from The Associated Press and the CBC's Bill Gillespie