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The ease with which Egypt was able to shutdown the Internet to cut off communications during violent, anti-government protests demonstrates the Internet's vulnerability in countries where there are few service providers.
Egypt, where protests stem from frustration over government corruption, a depressed economy, and a lack of political freedom, started its Internet blockade this week by cutting off access to Twitter and Facebook. The sites are often used by protesters in troubled nations to organize demonstrations and stay a step ahead of police. On Friday, the sites were still inaccessible.
"We saw a drop in Egyptian traffic on Thursday and are now seeing only minimal traffic from Egypt," Facebook said in a statement emailed to InformationWeek Friday.
The Egyptian government, which has been led by President Hosni Mubarak for 30 years, was able to shutdown the Internet relatively easy because only four ISPs operate in the country: Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, and Etisalat Misr. Renesys, an Internet monitoring body, said the ISPs went down separately within a 13-minute period Thursday night.
The domino-like takedown of the ISPs indicated the government didn't have a master shutoff switch, but ordered each company to flip their in-house switches.
"This sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air," James Cowie, chief technology officer for Renesys, said in the company's blog. "Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced."
Vodafone Egypt issued a statement saying all mobile phone operators had been ordered to suspend services in selected areas. "Under Egyptian legislation, the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it," the company said.
The Egyptian government is not the first to shutdown the Internet during political unrest. The Burmese government ordered a takedown in September 2007, and Nepal severed all international Internet connections after the government declared martial law in February 2005.
The fewer the ISPs, the easier it is for governments to impose a blockade. Burma, for example, had only two ISPs in 2007. Shutting down the Internet in developed nations, such as the U.S., would be far more difficult, if not impossible, because of the many ISPs operating in the countries with networks linked to other networks inside and outside the borders, experts say.