When Your Country Gets Erased From the Internet: Egypt, Net Neutrality, and Web Freedom

02/01/2011 03:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011 Websites go down. Countries block citizens’ access. But entire countries’ websites don’t just disappear from the Internet.

And then they do. In Egypt, at precisely 12:34 a.m. EET (22:34 UTC) on Friday morning, the government apparently shut down Internet access not just from but into Egypt. That is, Egypt didn’t lose Internet access: the Internet lost Egypt.

Governments like this don’t explain how they do these things, so it’s unclear exactly how this might have happened. Sending Egyptian police around to manually smash everyone’s routers wouldn’t have been practical. Nor would the government have the ability to simply shut down all addresses with an .eg domain, which they do not own. But the government does own the country’s two major ISPs. In all likelihood, reports GigaOM’s Bobby Johnson, officials closed down the major routers which direct traffic over the border, shutting the country out from the world, and switched off routers at individual ISPs to prevent access for most users inside.

"It looks like they're taking action at two levels," Rik Ferguson of Trend Micro told me. "First at the DNS level, so any attempt to resolve any address in .eg will fail -- but also, in case you're trying to get directly to an address, they are also using the Border Gateway Protocol, the system through which ISPs advertise their Internet protocol addresses to the network. Many ISPs have basically stopped advertising any internet addresses at all."

Essentially, we're talking about a system that no longer knows where anything is. Outsiders can't find Egyptian websites, and insiders can't find anything at all. It's as if the postal system suddenly erased every address inside America -- and forgot that it was even called America in the first place.

A complete border shutdown might have been easier, but Egypt has made sure that there should be no downstream impact, no loss of traffic in countries further down the cables. That will ease the diplomatic and economic pressure from other nations, and make it harder for protesters inside the country to get information in and out.

Shutting off access to websites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, as Tunisia recently did, and as countries like Iran and China consistently do, is a terrible restriction on a country’s citizens and an insult to the idea of the web. (Fortunately, it doesn’t prevent citizens from finding ingenious ways out – even if that means dial-up.) But to shut down the rest of the world’s ability to access your country online is a different kind of offense, one that insults the dignity of a modern country and affects Internet-going people anywhere. It’s not easily fixable either: you can’t find an alternate route to something that isn’t there. It’s one thing to close your doors and windows; it’s quite another thing to light your house on fire.

Of course, this virtual suicide might aptly symbolize Cairo’s desperate attempt to maintain power. But the prospect should also be a scary wake-up call for anyone who considers the Internet to be an open network undefined by borders, controlled by no one, available to all, a world-changing vehicle for free speech that’s been designed to persist even through a nuclear war.

Of course, to believe that description of the Internet now would be a techno-optimist’s delusion. But the gap between the medium’s potential and its sudden disappearance in Egypt is a vivid reminder of its susceptibility to both government and corporate power. Here is why net neutrality is such a precious principle. The war over it is just getting started in the U.S., thanks to the FCC’s burgeoning framework; Egypt’s webicide sits in another theater of war.

But the Internet, at least as we like to think of it, transcends borders, functions as a vital transnational conduit. As Egypt’s case illustrates, even when a battle is waged in one country, it can effect everyone else. We don’t yet have a set of principles, much less a set of laws, for dealing with this information chaos. (What role might the enfeebled United Nations play on the Web? What if the legal framework that, for instance, could allow the U.S. to prosecute a European who uses the Internet to spread secret information were applied to the entire medium itself?)

Though rumors about Syria following suit turned out to be inaccurate (only the usual suspects suffered outages), it’s not hard to imagine other nervous governments following suit. Maybe, someday, even the United States.

Read this and more atMotherboard