By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 2:57 PM
The decision by Egyptian officials to virtually shut down Internet access to the country Friday marked an audacious escalation in the battle between authoritarian governments and tech-savvy protesters. It was also a direct challenge to the Obama administration's attempts to promote Internet freedom.
Internet access was cut off in Egypt shortly after midnight Friday, apparently after authorities ordered the country's five service providers to block it, according to experts. Cellphone service was also severely disrupted.
"The Egyptian government's actions ... have essentially wiped their country from the global map," James Cowie of Renesys, a New Hampshire-based company that monitors Internet data, said on the company's Web site.
The move came roughly a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had publicly urged Egypt not to close off access to the technology and social media that were being used to organize demonstrations. On Friday, the administration denounced Egypt's action - first by using Twitter.
"Govt must respect the rights of Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs warned in a tweet.
U.S. officials concede that Twitter does not a revolution make. But they believe that such platforms have accelerated the pace of protest movements, citing the rapid coalescence of the Tunisian demonstrations that toppled that country's longtime leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian demonstrations that erupted this week.
"From now on, any and all dissent movements will have technology as a core component," said Alec Ross, Clinton's senior adviser for innovation.
The Obama administration has elevated Internet freedom in U.S. diplomacy, and Clinton gave a major speech on the issue last year. The State Department is currently working on plans to spend $30 million on Internet freedom projects, including software that enables activists to break through firewalls imposed by oppressive governments.
The increased U.S. focus on Internet freedom, however, has gotten mixed reviews from bloggers and analysts.
Some warn that repressive governments will respond to the U.S. actions by intensifying their own technological assaults on bloggers and dissidents. Activists also worry that those receiving U.S. assistance could be tagged as Western puppets by oppressive governments.
"Having the U.S. and other Western governments as major actors in the Internet freedom field could present a real threat to activists who accept their support and funding," Sami Ben Gharbia, a prominent Tunisian Internet activist, wrote in an essay last fall.
Social media and hand-held communication devices are growing so quickly that U.S. officials are struggling to keep up with their political repercussions. In the past two years, the number of cellphones worldwide grew from about 4.1 billion to over 5 billion.
In Egypt this week, one self-described protest organizer in Cairo, 20-year-old university student Mohammed Hassan, described how he and like-minded friends broke up into cells of four or five that moved to different parts of the capital, and then used their mobile phones to communicate about the presence or lack of police.
"The sites for the demonstration weren't actually the ones announced on television," he said. "We wanted to make sure they didn't stop our protest before it even started."
Internet use in Egypt went from less than 1 percent to 21 percent of the population in the past decade, according to U.N. statistics. Usage is particularly high among the young, educated and urban residents who have formed the core of this week's anti-government protests. There are roughly 160,000 bloggers, who have been influential in raising once-taboo subjects like the military, according to a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks.
But, if activists are recognizing the power of the new technology to help them challenge the status quo, so are governments.
Cowie, the chief technology officer at Renesys, said the Egyptian shutdown was far more dramatic than the Tunisian government's recent attacks on Internet sites used to coordinate demonstrations, or the Iranian government's moves in 2009 to slow down Internet connectivity during protests.
The Tunisian government's actions, however, were also aggressive. According to the Atlantic magazine, Tunisian officials attempted to hack into Facebook and steal the passwords of every user in the country during the demonstrations. (About 19 percent of Tunisians use the Web site). Facebook made technical changes to frustrate the government's efforts.
As Ben Ali struggled to remain in power, Obama administration officials in Washington and the U.S. ambassador in Tunis met with Tunisian officials to complain about the attempts to prevent access to the Web sites with information about protests.
The State Department releases few details of its Internet freedom programs worldwide, saying it wants to protect those who use them. Clinton said last year that the United States was working in 40 countries to help Internet users censored by oppressive governments.
This month, the State Department laid out plans to spend $30 million on such programs as training activists on how to avoid being censored or hacked, and providing Web-based technology to help people break through government firewalls. The money, appropriated by Congress in 2010, is a 600 percent increase from the previous year. The administration has also lifted restrictions on U.S. companies exporting instant-messaging and antifiltering software to countries such as Iran, Cuba and Sudan.
Rebecca MacKinnon, an Internet policy specialist at the New America Foundation, said many activists in places like the Middle East used anti-censorship programs provided by the U.S. government or U.S.-funded groups.
But at the same time, many bloggers worried that their governments could accuse them of being U.S. lackeys if they accept assistance, she said. Further complicating the situation: The American government has been especially eager to promote Internet freedom in countries with which it has tense relationships, notably Iran, MacKinnon said.
"Despite the fact Tunisia had one of the most sophisticated censorship and surveillance systems in the world, Tunisia was not appearing on the Internet freedom agenda. Why? Because Ben Ali has basically received U.S. tacit support," she said.
U.S. officials say they're not using the Internet freedom agenda to prompt regime change or focus on its enemies. Clinton criticized Tunisia and Egypt in her Internet speech last year, they note, and the U.S. government has run Internet freedom projects in both countries.
Still, U.S. lawmakers have made it clear that the Islamic Republic and China are priorities for the Internet freedom projects.
Ross acknowledged that U.S. officials had to be cautious that their aid didn't endanger bloggers and Internet activists in closed societies. And, he said, "human rights organizations, activist organizations, have to make choices about what is in their best interests." Of course, anti-filter technology is of no use if the government has blocked the entire Internet, as Egypt has attempted to do. But it is not clear such a shutdown can last long.
"What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80,000,000 people from the Internet?" Cowie wrote. "This has never happened before, and the unknowns are piling up."
Correspondent Griff Witte in Cairo contributed to this report.