Telephone networks were shut down when Lech Walesa was leading the workers of Gdansk against the Polish government in the early 1980s. King Gyanendra shut down the mobile networks of Nepal a few years back. It is not the first time that telecom networks have been shut down by governments with their backs to the wall.
Reflections on the Egyptian shut down should be read in this historical context. The key difference is that Egypt was perhaps at a qualitatively higher level of ICT use when they hit the kill switch. It is also worth considering what happened to General Jaruzelski and King Gyanendra.
During initial wave of Tunisian protests, expressions of solidarity were made via social networking sites such as Facebook, but it was in the organisation of the first Egyptian protests that the powerful role that social media would play in these events truly became apparent.
The protests themselves are believed to have been instigated by a Youtube video calling for action; this spread via social media and resulted in a spate of protests being organised nationwide, largely via Facebook and other social networking sites, with Twitter proving particularly popular for posting up-to-the-minute information as the protests progressed.
Coordinated protests began on January 25th, with thousands gathering in cities across Egypt, including Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismaïlia. Three days later, ahead of large-scale planned protests, the government took action apparently aimed at preventing long-distance communication: internet services were shut down, and mobile operators were obliged to suspend services following a government order.
Although Saturday 29th January marked the day on which 80% of Egypt’s Internet access went dark, this was not the first move made by the government against telecommunications services. Shortly after the insurgency began, Mubarak had ordered that access to various social networking sites be suspended, directly acknowledging the role that such sites had played in the organisation of protests.
The government’s attempt to block access to telecommunications speaks volumes about how these services have become a part of everyday existence over recent years. After Egyptian state television and newspapers notoriously attempted to play down the initial wave of protests, any pretence of impartiality was shattered, dealing a blow to the credibility of state media and underlining the role of telecommunications in providing reliable information.
More than this though, the reaction indicated that Mubarak’s government was attempting to prevent the spread of information about the protests in a desperate bid to limit their impact – essentially a tacit acknowledgement of how powerful social media have become in their ability to connect and unify people.
Speaking about the situation in Egypt, Microsoft’s Bill Gates said: “Whenever you do something extraordinary like [shutting down the internet] you’re sort of showing people you’re afraid of the truth getting out, so it’s a very difficult tactic.”