Like it or not, the internet plays a huge part in our lives today. It allows us to instantly communicate with anyone, from our friends to larger protest groups. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow for the planning of events, mass communication and the creation of a community. What do we do when our access to these social outlets is cut off? When the Egyptian government censored the internet during the January Arab Spring protests, they inadvertently rallied more people against them. Similar events transpired in Tunisia and Syria with the censorship of the internet as well. This brought more people to stand up in protest in the real world, beginning the end of the regime.
During the Arab Spring protests, Egypt was in the perfect position structurally to restrict access to the internet. Despite it having significant infrastructure, there aren’t a huge amount of ISPs serving the country. This allowed for the Mubarak regime to fairly quickly force these providers to shut down access in the entire country. This caused a 90% drop in internet traffic to Egypt. Now this was purposely planned by the government as internet access to the stock exchange and from some government buildings was still up. One reason this was able to happen is that the government was a primary figure in the spread of internet infrastructure throughout the country. This along with no prior history of shutting down telecommunications access lead to the ISPs in Egypt to not adequately prepare for any sort of forced shutdown.
Egypt wasn’t the only country to shut down internet access during the Arab Spring. Tunisia and Syria also had the internet shut down in the hopes that it would stop protests and political dissidents. Syria also had pro-Assad groups of hackers disrupt internet activity in the Country. Their actions essentially had the opposite effect the regimes probably thought they would, leading more people to join the protests and gaining the outside support of other groups, such as the hacker collective Anonymous. Even though the government shut down most access, the protesters could still use the internet in a reduced capacity through services like The TOR Project, a proxy service to hide your location and identity, and dial-up internet services.
Tunisia as well is responsible for internet censorship and hacking certain websites. One of the Tunisian government’s largest targets is Facebook, a goldmine for the regime for finding out who is against them and who the leaders of the protests are. Facebook was also a prime target because it allowed for videos to be uploaded freely as other video sharing services were blocked by the government. What the nation had done is create a piece of malware that searched for if a person was accessing a site like Facebook and stole their login information. Through this, Tunisia would be able to steal the login information of every citizen. Facebook quickly put a stop to this by forcing secured connections to the login servers as well as having a secondary form of authentication by having users identify their friends in photos.
The hacker group Anonymous assisted the people of the Arab Spring against the censorship of the Internet. In recent years, Anonymous has been concerned with free speech and the free spread of ideas using the internet. One of the group’s projects was called Operation Egypt, creating ways for the Egyptian citizens to connect to the internet again. They used their collective abilities to allow for the Egyptian people to access censored content through website mirrors and internet proxies. A quote that describes the situation by Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty’s international secretariat, is that “Governments are obviously threatened by the fact that activists have become so effective at using these new technologies and social media.” This is perfect for a group like Anonymous who are very in touch with the internet and ways around government censorship given their past with similar operations. In particular they like helping those who are under oppressive regimes, giving them a common ground with the Arab Spring protesters.
What was the ultimate goal of these nations that stopped the flow of information over the internet? They might have temporarily stopped the protesters, but they were right back up on their feet again in the real world. Did they take into consideration the businesses that relied on the internet? How about how they were both directly and indirectly stopping the flow of money into the government and the massive loss of profits that resulted? This was a decision that shouldn’t have been taken lightly, but it appears they did anyway without regard for the consequences. In the end, the regimes paid for it by getting even more people against them and joining the protesters. Just because shutting off the internet was an option these dictators had, doesn’t mean it was one they should have used.