Implications of Egypt's Internet Shutdown

Wasn’t Egypt supposed to be one of the most stable countries in the Arab world and middle East? Apparently not! The Egyptian government’s decision to pull the plug on the country’s ISPs has left most of Egypt’s 80 million residents and businesses without Internet access for the last five days. Experts say the situation shows how vulnerable on-line communications still are today.

Several tech companies have been adversely effected. This morning, KCBS radio reported that Cisco Systems, HP, and Google have closed down their offices in Egypt and told employees to stay home and telecommute (to whom and to where?). Google was reportedly not able to locate its Middle East/Africa Head of Marketing, who was rumored to be sleeping on the streets of Cairo.

According to Andrew S. Ross of SF Gate,

“A little over two months ago, Cisco happily announced the installation of one of its Telepresence videoconferencing systems at Smart Village, a high-tech industrial park situated just outside Cairo. In addition to its ‘very promising’ IT and communications market, one of the competitive advantages the Middle East nation offered, according to Cisco, was ‘political stability.’ That was apparently an illusion.  ‘Cisco has temporarily closed its Cairo offices due to the recent civil unrest,’ the company said in a statement sent to me on Monday. ‘The company is closely monitoring the situation, we continue to stay close to our Egyptian employees and we remain prepared to respond if needed to any impact to our employees, customers or business in Egypt'””

Read more:

There are several important implications of Egypt’s Internet going dark. Here are a few:

  1. Outsourcing work to developing countries: which one’s are safe and how much work should be outsourced?
  2. Vulnerability of relying exclusively on IP VPNs accessed via the public Internet.
  3. Ensuring back up Internet access is in place- either via private lines or digital switched connections.
  4. Viability of cloud computing, especially Software as a Service (SaaS) for mission critical tasks.
  5. Enterprises and government agencies reverting back to private networks or Intranets that they directly control.

The key point to ponder is that the unpredictability of problems like this one in Egypt can seriously impact the security and availability of key support services as well as local business operations. Some areas that could be adversely effected include: IT storage/retrieval, finance and accounting, payroll, customer services (CRM), ERP, etc. If political protests and uprisings like the one’s in Egypt, Tunisia, and other oppressive Arab states proliferate to other countries with global outsourcing support services (e.g the Phillipines), the first reaction of governments may be to shut off the Internet or at least block Facebook and Twitter (which happened in 2009 after disputed election protests in Iran).

Meanwhile, Egypt’s Police Department data communications were unaffected by the Internet shutdown. That’s because they use a Fixed WiMAX based private network for communications between police stations and the Ministry of Interior. Please see this article which briefly describes that network as of Feb 19, 2009:

Egypt’s MoI fixed WiMAX Deployment – A Secure and Reliable Private Network

0 thoughts on “Implications of Egypt's Internet Shutdown

  1. Matt Mullenweg pointed out this very interesting post on the situation in Egypt.

    At first I didn’t think there was a tie-in to this article, but it does show how difficult it is to suppress information these days as long as one can get it out via a unicast method (e.g. a phone call), it can still spread via the Internet to the rest of the world.

    1. An interesting point… wired phones. Turns out that Esraa Abdel Fattah, among other organizers in Egypt, have been very effective using traditional phone lines and face to face communications while the Internet is down.

      I attended a military conference on cyberspace a couple years back. At that time the electrical grid was a #1 concern and telecom #2. So isn’t this ironic that a simple order took out cyberspace. Kind of makes you wonder where we’d be at if a massive solar flare impacted the earth as scientists believe it could… We probably have enough wires to stay connected, but we might have to attach tin cans to the ends of the wires.

      The issues above are interesting, but is unpredictability truly the point to ponder? I know my computer will crash and I will lose data along with connectivity. I know I’m in trouble if the Google docs cloud goes down. I know there are security and privacy issues on the net so Sarah P Noonan is still out there. I know there is a possibility that a large solar flare could take us back to the dark ages. The only thing unpredictable with these issues is when, so the point should be – what am I doing to be prepared. It pays to prepare… Many telco’s have disaster recovery plans and I’ve heard these issues addressed.

  2. Very ironic that 2 years ago when I talked to Egypts MoI Brigadeer Engineer Hassan Khoadairy he told me that Internet acces and VPNs were too unreliable for Egyptian government agencies to use. Two years ago, he said, “Fixed WiMAX was the only effective solution for a point to multi-point (P2MP) wireless network that interconnects the headquarters building to sub central and smaller police stations. Fixed WiMAX was said to have greater signal stability then proprietary broadband wireless platforms (e.g. Motorola Canopy)- particularly for non Line of Site operation. WiMAX was also more reliable over the large coverage area of deployment.”

  3. Internet Shutdown in Egypt Has Wider Implications for Telecoms Industry

    “At a most basic level it underlines the political risk of operating in the emerging markets for players as diverse such as Vodafone, Blackberry, and Google, which they have to weight against the undoubted growth opportunity.

    More importantly, it is clear that the massive growth of mobile and Internet services, while bringing massive productivity and social benefits to the region, has also brought a whole new level of social connectness, openness, information access, and aspiration. Particularly in the younger generation that goes against the more conservative and authoritarian tradition that has been the norm hitherto.

    In this context, the telecoms boom in the region accelerated the clash between tradition and modernity, the open versus closed society, which we are now witnessing in the Middle East, and other places (e.g. China), which regimes are trying to contain.”

  4. Is it still a good idea to outsource to China, India, Pakistan, Phillipines, Mexico, etc? Are those countries rock solid stable with no concerns about Internet going dark? This should be an eye opener to major US corporations!

  5. Telcos Played a Role in Egypt’s Internet Shutdown

    According to the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News:

    “The move to shut down the Internet was facilitated by companies like Vodafone and has been heavily criticized for both being unethical and for having detrimental impacts on the Egyptian economy.

    While Vodafone said there were technical aspects that made the cutoff inevitable, experts have said companies allow for legal clauses to dictate their policies in times of emergency.

    “The government of course needed the help of private companies and got it as well,” said Lucie Morillon, head of media at Reporters Without Borders.”
    A sidebar of the same story:

    Concentration of servers in Cairo facilitated cutoff

    Highly centralized infrastructure and a limited amount of Internet service providers partly account for the success of President Hosni Mubarak’s recent Internet shutdown, according to experts.

    The technical advantage of allocating all providers in the capital of Cairo had facilitated the extent to which the Internet could be eliminated within only a few hours. Until Wednesday, it was still possible to establish a connection in some areas via old 56K modems and satellite networks, but the overall majority of the Internet was completely blocked with activity numbers ranging between 2 and 8 percent.

    According to specialists, French data networks, which are normally used in emergencies, facilitated connections with Egypt, allowing some users to access the web.

    Julien Coulon, director of Internet-monitoring firm Cedexis, said the few Internet servers that were working were extremely slow, which either indicated excessive attempts to access the Internet or government sabotage.

  6. Just learned that a snow and ice storm in New Jersey caused many office buildings to lose power and web sites to go down. While this was due to an “act of God” it shows how vulnerable the Internet is to going dark!

  7. The ban on Internet services in Egypt has directly cost its economy approximately $5 million, while the indirect costs on its connectivity are substantial, as many businesses depending on online presence and cellular services have been affected. These developments raise several crucial questions for the future of the Egyptian ICT sector, according to a new research note from Hussam Barhoush, Senior Analyst at Pyramid Research.

    Information and communications technology (ICT) tools, such as online social networks, blogs, e-mail, SMS and voice services, have been used to prepare and organize the protests in Egypt, indicates Barhoush in a research note posted at Pyramid Points. This led the Egyptian government to ban Facebook and Twitter, followed by a ban on all Internet service for several days. Ironically, the Egyptian government has been sending SMS messages to the Egyptian people through Vodafone Egypt, in which it has a 36 percent ownership stake. These messages, which have provoked an outcry from some operators, emphasized the benefits of maintaining the political status quo, notes Barhoush.

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