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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 3

Internet Freedom Fighters Build a Shadow Web

Governments and corporations have more control over the Internet than ever. Now digital activists want to build an alternative network that can never be blocked, filtered or shut down



Photograph by Dan Saelinger

Just after midnight on January 28, 2011, the government of Egypt, rocked by three straight days of massive antiregime protests organized in part through Facebook and other online social networks, did something unprecedented in the history of 21st-century telecommunications: it turned off the Internet. Exactly how it did this remains unclear, but the evidence suggests that five well-placed phone calls—one to each of the country’s biggest Internet service providers (ISPs)—may have been all it took. At 12:12 a.m. Cairo time, network routing records show, the leading ISP, Telecom Egypt, began shutting down its customers’ connections to the rest of the Internet, and in the course of the next 13 minutes, four other providers followed suit. By 12:40 a.m. the operation was complete. An estimated 93 percent of the Egyptian Internet was now unreachable. When the sun rose the next morning, the protesters made their way to Tahrir Square in almost total digital darkness.

Both strategically and tactically, the Internet blackout accomplished little—the crowds that day were the biggest yet, and in the end, the demonstrators prevailed. But as an object lesson in the Internet’s vulnerability to top-down control, the shutdown was alarmingly instructive and perhaps long overdue.

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