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Reportage on the internet activists in Cairo

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd February 2011


For three days, the geeks and online activists and D.I.Y. filmmakers protested peacefully here in Tahrir Square. For three nights, they slept in tents with their laptops by their sides and kept their mobile phones charged by hacking into one of Tahrir’s street lights. On the fourth day, Wednesday, the lynch mob came and encircled them.

Wired met the internet activists in Tahrir Square, and had an interesting conversation with them about the role of the internet in the social uprising. They spoke with Ahmad Gharbeia. The excerpt is followed by an analysis of Andrew McLaughlin on the importance of distributed architectures.

Excerpts:

“For the past six years, Gharbeia has been training Arab world activists, journalists and human rights lawyers to hide their Internet communications from prying eyes. “We use encryption techniques and PGP for email,” he says. “We use proxies such as Tor that circumvent blocking. I was the Arabic editor of a tools set called Security in a Box. It’s a tool kit of open and free software that helps advocates and human rights activists achieve security, privacy and anonymity.”

The night before the siege, I interviewed him and his friends at their makeshift base-camp, a mesh of tents and small fires to keep warm while the group compiled a media archive of footage from the first days of the anti-Mubarak revolt. Over the weekend, around 100 people died when police shot tear gas and bullets at close range into protesters, and drove vehicles into crowds on a nearby bridge.

“It was very violent and brutal against peaceful people who just trying to cross the bridge… 17 people died right before my eyes,” says Ahmad Abdalla, a 32-year-old filmmaker. “That has been motivating me to collect all the footage possible. We have three computers, Mac, Linux, PC, so we’ll be able to handle everything. Cameras, mobile phones, anything.”

For days, the crew could only collect photos and video, without distributing what they shot. Last Friday, the government shut down Internet access, and was only restored on Wednesday. In two days they have compiled more than 100 gigabytes of pictures and footage.

“The role of the Internet was critical at the beginning,” Gharbeia says. “On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter. Everyone knew were everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police. It was real time navigation through the city, and that’s why it was shut down.”

While the Internet was cut, however, the groups made do by watching Al Jazeera. The protesters projected videos from the Qatar-based news channel last night – and passed along any news via landline or cell phone (when they were working).

Dissidents working under other oppressive regimes are used to navigating censorship. In Egypt, it’s not a finely honed skill in Egypt, says Gharbeia’s brother Amr (pictured, above). He works on Internet security with Amnesty International in London. Before this week, the Internet was almost completely open so there was no need to have those skills. The loss of such a basic tool enraged the tech crowd.

“Blocking the Internet was one of the biggest mistakes [the government] has made, plus cutting off mobile phones,” said a former official in the ministry of communications who now works for a large computer company. “That made the people very angry and more aggressive.”

Small pockets of Internet access, however, did exist at certain times. Egyptian authorities allowed small ISP Noor to operate until Monday morning. Le Monde reported that the government may have allowed Noor to continue because of its high-profile client list, including the Egyptian stock exchange, the Commercial International Bank of Egypt, the National Bank of Egypt and Egypt Air.

One of the protesters used Noor as well, so before Monday those at the protests would text or call the house with the connection, where half a dozen people uploaded the information to blogs and Facebook.

Mubarak’s mob failed to break the Tahrir protesters resolve on Wednesday, and the Egyptian leader’s incitement of violence will likely backfire against the 30-year regime. The crew, with their laptops in their tents, now surrounded by makeshift barricades, say they are not going anywhere.”

In the Guardian, Andrew McLaughlin on why centralized architectures can lead to easy shutdowns of communication:

“The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.”

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