Government censorship of the Internet During the Arab Spring

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.

14 thoughts on “Government censorship of the Internet During the Arab Spring

  1. Brian Letourneau

    The internet has become such a huge part of our lives. I don’t know what I would do for information or to communicate with others if government shut down the internet. It’s amazing to see how this action done with the intent of disrupting protesters actually backfired and was then used against the government.

  2. David Schunk

    Hey Shane – great paper man. I really enjoyed learning about the internet censorship that was happening in the Arab countries. I find it especially interesting that the hacker group Anonymous played a key role in helping the citizens of Egypt out. It is no surprise websites like Facebook and Twitter are a threat to the governments. We saw how much the people of Egypt used Facebook to coordinate when to meet up, etc. Nice job 🙂

  3. Rida El Boustani

    I like the amount of details you provided through your paper. I found it interesting how government move to shut down the inrernet did not affect protests. That reminds me of Egypt case. Great Paper!

  4. Domingos Kumpessa

    This is a fascinating and well-written abstract. I think you that what is missing at this point is the government unsubtle crack down on the Internet, social media, cell phones, and blogs. At some point, the Egyptian government made the mistake of shutting down the Internet. The act imposed a great cost to the country economy and an ironic consequence of radicalizing rural Egyptians into opposing the Mubarak regime.
    The Internet, social media, phones crackdown exposed Mubarak. He betrayed his own fear that those tools could empower his opponents and expose his weaknesses to the world and topple his regime.

  5. Dylan Dvareckas

    For my final I also wrote about censorship but in China instead of the Middle East. It is definitely interesting to see the different uses of censorship that both sides try to use to control their citizens. In China it is a more permanent solution where sometimes they will shut down certain sites completely in times of riots and protests. From what I’ve seen the Middle East uses complete shut downs of the internet to silence the population. Both methods should be stopped as nations should not be able to silence the people.

  6. Spencer Gumbart

    It is interesting to note the different ways in which governments go about censoring the internet. In China, for example, the government prefers to remove content and block outside websites directly, rather than steal user information. This way, it is more difficult for affected sites to solve the issue, especially considering the strength of the Great Firewall. However, the benefit of the hacking method seems to be that it is much less cost intensive, and thus would be easier to maintain over a longer period of time, assuming it wasn’t stopped by an outside source, as was the case in Tunisia. Perhaps these different approaches signify the different levels of government power between China and Tunisia?

  7. Mike Dargie

    I just wanna talk about the “Tor Project” a little bit. Now more then ever as the world becomes reliant on the Internet and conversations are happening through the wire it is important that people are encrypting and anonomizing their conversations. We saw this happening in the Middle East like you talked about, and tor played a major role. It always people to reliably access the internet with little strain on their network speed. I think that tor should be used by even the most tech un-savvy of families and friends to chat.

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