As the news came out late Monday that the last remaining independent ISP, who had remained online in Egypt, has now turned off its connection to the wider internet as well
, people are beginning to explore what this all means. Andrew McLaughlin, who until recently was the deputy CTO of the Obama administration, has penned a thoughtful article for the Guardian noting how this emphasizes how infrastructure really matters
and how limited competition allows these situations to develop:
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.
But, perhaps the bigger question is how will the cut off actually impact the Egyptian economy and wider society as a whole. It's really quite amazing how integrated the internet has become in all our lives, and it really has become a fundamental part of the economy and how we live. Pulling the plug on the internet in a decently large country has serious ramification both inside the country (most seriously) and outside:
A central unknown at this moment is what the economic harm to the country will be. Without internet and voice networks, Egyptians are losing transactions and deals, their stocks and commodities cannot be traded, their goods are halted on frozen transportation networks, and their bank deposits are beyond reach.
Also unknown is how many Egyptians have been harmed in non-economic ways – as human beings. As things stand, a worried mother who has not heard from her son or daughter can't send an email or check Facebook for a status update. A witness to violence or abuse can't seek help, document responsibility, or warn others via Twitter or a blog.
Life-saving information is inaccessible. Healthy, civil debate about the future is squashed. And in the absence of trustworthy news, firsthand reports and real-time images, rumour and fear flourish. In all those ways, the total internet cutoff undermines the government's own interest in restoring calm and order.
I imagine that there will be numerous case studies that come out of this unfortunate situation, based on what happens. One can only hope that the actual harms aren't as bad as they might be.