On the Communications Shutdown in Egypt

Jeff Ely on possible unintended consequences from Egypt cutting off communications networks:

The decision to get out and protest is a strategic one. It’s privately costly and it pays off only if there is a critical mass of others who make the same commitment. It can be very costly if that critical mass doesn’t materialize.

Communications networks affect coordination. Before committing yourself you can talk to others, check Facebook and Twitter, and try to gauge the momentum of the protest. These media aggregate private information about the rewards to a protest but its important to remember that this cuts two ways.

If it looks underwhelming you stay home, go to work, etc. And therefore so does everybody who gets similar information as you. All of you benefit from avoiding protesting when the protest is likely to be unsuccessful. What’s more, in these cases even the regime benefits from enabling private communication, because the protest loses steam.

Now consider the strategic situation when you lines of communication are cut and you are acting in ignorance of the will of others. The first observation is that in these cases when the protest would have fizzled, without advance knowledge of this many people will go out and protest. Many are worse off, including the regime.

The second observation is that even in those cases when protest coordination would have been amplified by private communication, shutting down communication may nevertheless have the same effect, perhaps even a stronger one. There are two reasons for this. First, the regime’s decision to shut down communications networks is an informed one. They wouldn’t bother taking such a costly and face-losing move if they didn’t think that a protest was a real threat. The inference therefore, when you are in your home and you can’t call your friends and the internet is shut down is that the protest has a real chance of being effective. The signal you get from this act by the regime substitutes for the positive signal you would have gotten had they not acted.

The other reason is that this signal is public. Everyone knows that everyone knows … that the internet has shut down. Instead of relying on the noisy private signal that you get from talking to your friends, now you know that everybody is seeing exactly the same thing and are emboldened in exactly the same way.

It’s as if the regime has done the information aggregation for you and packaged it into a nice fat public signal. This removes a lot of the coordination uncertainty and strengthens your resolve to protest.

Via Tyler Cowen, “I would add that today’s autocracies hire consultants who advise them on how to best stifle political dissent. Clumsy errors are less common than in times past. That increases the likelihood that the Egyptian government sees these protests as very serious indeed.”

A longtime TPM reader who is in the know:

The original PKI design for the Internet was not designed to withstand government coercion. There were good reasons for this approach in 1995, the objective was to secure E-commerce and make Internet commerce possible. Attempting to make the system secure against every possible risk would have led to no system at all.

That said, it has been clear that we need to address this vulnerability for some time and there are efforts underway to that end. Efforts whose prospects of success will probably not be helped by describing them in detail in a thread likely to be read by oppressive regimes looking for ideas.

Looking to the role of Twitter and Facebook in the current unrest, the most important message that Internet users in Egypt have received from their government through the Internet is that it is scared and panicked. A government that has told its people that is scared of them is not likely to last very long. Blocking the Internet may be seen in retrospect as the Ceausescu moment for the regime.

Twitter and Facebook can bring people together, but once they connect they have the opportunity to establish other methods of contact. Mubarak was safe while people were sitting on their butts twittering. He is much less safe now he has taken away Twitter and forced them to come out into the streets.

GigaOM’s Bobbie Johnson on how they did it, “Essentially, officials can either close down the routers which direct traffic over the border — hermetically sealing the country from outsiders — or go further down the chain and switch off routers at individual ISPs to prevent access for most users inside.” More on that from Ars Technica and PC World. And Mashable is hearing that Syria may have made a similar move.

At Boing Boing, Sean Bonner notes Lieberman wants the power to do it here:

[L]ast year Senators Lieberman and Collins introduced a fairly far-reaching bill that would allow the US Government to shut down civilian access to the internet should a “Cybersecurity Emergency” arise, and keep it offline indefinitely. That version of the bill received some criticism though Lieberman continued to insist it was important. The bill, now referred to as the ‘Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act’ (PCNAA) has been revised a bit and most notably now removes all judicial oversight. This bill is still currently circulating and will be voted on later this year. Lieberman has said it should be a top priority.

Note that the shutdown isn’t absolute. Some data is still getting in and out of Egypt. But it underscores that the internet is increasingly vulnerable to governments. And its corporate owners.

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