By DANA WOLLMAN
The Associated Press
Friday, March 4, 2011; 5:15 PM
NEW YORK -- Internet services in Libya, already spotty throughout the country's violent upheaval, appeared completely halted in an attempt to stifle information about the insurrection.
The move, coming ahead of planned protests in Libya, appears similar to Egypt's response to the demonstrations that led President Hosni Mubarak to step down last month. The Libyan government controls the country's primary Internet service provider.
Arbor Networks, a Chelmsford, Mass., network security company said Friday that all Internet traffic coming in and out of Libya had ceased, starting at about noon EST Thursday (7 p.m. in Tripoli, Libya). Google's transparency report, which shows traffic to the company's sites from various countries, also showed that Internet traffic had fallen to zero in Libya.
Several days into Egypt's largely nonviolent protest, the government there shut down Internet access for almost a week. Anti-government protesters there had been using social-media services such as Facebook and Twitter to organize and share personal experiences of the unrest.
That wasn't the case in Libya, a country where relatively few people have Internet access. Only about 6 percent of Libyans have Internet access in the home or in public places, such as Internet cafes, according to the research group OpenNet Initiative. That compares with 24 percent of Egyptians and 81 percent of people in the U.S., according to OpenNet.
As a result, services such as Facebook and Twitter have played a marginal role in galvanizing anti-government protesters, said Jillian York, who coordinates the OpenNet Initiative, a research project run by scholars at Harvard University and the University of Toronto and by the Canadian consultancy SecDev Group.
Nonetheless, because the Internet isn't as central to everyday life in Libya, it is more likely that the few who can get online are educated, influential and using the Web to keep informed about politics, York said.
"You've got millions of people in Egypt using the Internet. It's not just the few people with access are reporting on protests. It's mommy blogging. It's all sorts of things not related to the protests," she said. "In Libya there's a stronger chance they'd be focused on what's happening right now politically."
But the blackout will affect even those who are not politically active. The loss of Internet access will make it more difficult for Libyans, particularly those living in the capital of Tripoli, to receive updates about the uprising in other parts of the country, said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes free expression on the Internet.
"For the people not in Tripoli the Internet is not so central in what's become an armed rebellion," she said. "For the people in Tripoli it's going to further isolate them from people in other parts of the country and information about what's happening there."
In particular, an Internet blackout in Libya will make it tougher for people outside the country to know how the uprising is unfolding. That was likely the government's main motivation in shutting down the Internet in a country where people are more likely to communicate using cell phones, said Richard Esguerra, policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"I think what it raises is illuminating about how desperate this act is," he said. "Shutting off the Internet seems to be one of the last things in the playbook in terms of a dictator that's being threatened by uprisings."
The AP saw no evidence of cell phone disruptions in Libya on Friday though coverage has on occasion been spotty. Libya has one of the highest concentrations of cell phone users in Africa. The Libyan government owns the country's two mobile phone operators.