Egypt and the internet ‘killswitch’

The protests in Egypt this year captured the world’s attention and part of the initial excitement about the protests was that they were a “Facebook revolution”, with the initial spark for the unprecedented demonstrations coming from the new and uncontrollable frontier of the internet.

The Egyptian authorities soon put paid to that, firstly by blocking access to Facebook and Twitter. When savvy users resorted to Tor, a piece of software that allows internet users to circumvent censorship systems, the authorities shut down the internet. 88% of Egyptian internet users lost access to the web completely. As the Telegraph notes:

The Egyptian government’s action is unprecedented in the history of the internet. Countries such as China, Iran, Thailand and Tunisia have cut off access to news websites and social networking services during periods of unrest…

The ongoing attempt by the Egyptian government to shut down all online communication is, however, a new phenomenon. It not only prevents ordinary Egyptian internet users from accessing any websites, it cripples Tor, an anti-censorship tool that technical experts and activists were using to circumvent the Facebook and Twitter blocks.

All well and good. But it could never happen in the west, right?

The same day that Egypt was having it’s access to the internet shut down, reports surfaced in the US media that a bill that would give the President a so called “kill switch” the power to shut down the internet had been revived and would be presented to Congress. Wired explains the rationale:

An aide to the Homeland Security committee described the bill as one that does not mandate the shuttering of the entire internet. Instead, it would authorize the president to demand turning off access to so-called “critical infrastructure” where necessary.

An example, the aide said, would require infrastructure connected to “the system that controls the floodgates to the Hoover dam” to cut its connection to the net if the government detected an imminent cyber attack.

Yes, to protect the Hoover Dam the President of the United States needs the power to shut down the computer network that controls the Hoover dam. And also the network that controls Farmville.


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3 Responses to Egypt and the internet ‘killswitch’

  1. Laura Makin-Isherwood says:

    Very worrying!

    It shocks me when I read about things like this, that I am so naive as to think it wouldn’t happen in the West…of course it could…

    How does a ‘kill switch’ work? Is it in the White House next to the lights panel? Or the fuse box under the stairs?

  2. acpart says:

    I think it would probably be a literal switch. Probably next to the light switch or something, just to keep everyone on their toes.

    What I like is, everywhere this kind of stuff is done, it’s always for the safety of the people. “Guys, the Hoover dam could explode or something, therefore we need to shut down the internet for your safety.”

    Just like the ticket barriers at train stations are for your convenience. Or those anti-piracy things at the start of DVDs are to protect you from poor quality ripoffs.

    But yeah, the west needs to be a bit more forceful on this. This and net neutrality, which the US congress seems hellbent on ending, meaning certain traffic on the internet (say, the FOX News website) could go quicker than others (say, independent local news).

    Genuinely think that this kind of era will be seen as a golden age of the internet, before the corporations really took it over. Oh well.

  3. What a scary prospect. And ending net neutrality- doesn’t bode well for online press freedom does it?

    It’s interesting to note in the article that it would be incredibly difficult to locate the threat of a cyber attack anyway. It begs the question, what’s the point?!

    It’s frightening but I agree about the Golden age of internet. I think that more regulation will be an inevitable consequence if we’re going to see online media work it’s way into the mainstream. People will want to filter out all those internet trolls.

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