Egypt’s Internet Blackout: It Could Happen in America

Americans pride themselves on free speech exercised via the internet, but the Egypt internet blackout should remind us all that we are not immune to this sort of authoritarian strike.

Egypt's Internet Blackout: It Could Happen in America

At 10:30GMT on Thursday night, there was a massive interruption in Egypt’s internet service — an internet blackout aimed to staunch the flow of Egypt’s popular democratic uprising.

The Telegraph reports:

“The shut down involved the withdrawal of more than 3,500 Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes by Egyptian ISPs, according to Renesys, a networking firm. Only one ISP out of 10, Noor Data Networks, appeared largely unaffected. It connects to the outside world via an undersea cable operated by Telecom Italia.”

It should come as no surprise that a dictator like Hosni Mubarack and his military-backed regime would attempt to sever internet communication in Egypt, as protestors used social media like Twitter and Facebook to communicate and organize, just as occurred in June of 2009.

Twitter was also used in the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, where protestors actually had to sue the city in order to protest, after several protest permits were denied.

And the U.S. response to Americans using Twitter in a time of protests is little known but eye-opening.  Activist Elliot Madison used Twitter to help crowds of protesters disperse from advancing police.  The government didn’t take kindly to Madison using the very same tactics they had encouraged Iranians to use in 2009, and so they raided Madison’s hotel room.  A week later the FBI raided Madison’s home ‘Tortuga House’ in Queens, NY, on a search warrant related to Madison’s Pittsburgh tweets.

The message was profound: Twitter activism used abroad in unfriendly regimes like Iran is okay, but used here at home and it becomes a felony.

Now that Egypt has actually proceeded beyond denying service on Facebook and Twitter to a near wholesale internet blackout, we Americans should remember that Joe Lieberman’s parting gift, the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset” bill, would give the president the power to declare certain systems national assets in a time of a national emergency.

And while we have been instructed that the bill will in no way limit our free speech, the definition of a national emergency can be as flexible as a frightened president or Congress wants it to be, or as malleable as the Justice Department can make it.

What is to stop a U.S. president from using the “internet kill switch” to create a blackout similar to what we’ve seen in Egypt?

The FBI and police have already proven that they don’t like the use of Twitter in demonstrations, as seen in the G20 Pittsburgh protests.  And even without the legal justification for such a move, a U.S. president could put pressure on internet service providers (ISP’s) to cancel service in a popular U.S. uprising like Egypt’s.

Remember… Senator Lieberman used the Senate Homeland Security Committee as his personal fiefdom to intimidate Amazon, Mastercard and VISA to deny service to WikiLeaks.

The internet blackout in Egypt should be harrowing to any person who values their freedom, because it proved to all governments that they can and will shut down the internet when it is in their vested interest.

Power only wishes to preserve itself and will go to any lengths to do so.

Egypt's Internet Blackout: It Could Happen in America
A graph illustrating Egypt’s internet blackout