Internet Access as a right and the Egyptian Internet Shutdown

I’m not going to do any in depth analysis (I’ll leave that to my good friends at Renesys)- it’s everywhere – but unless you’ve been comatose for the last few days, you can’t have helped notice the situation in Egypt.

Being an internet geek, I’m still going to focus on the country’s decision to take itself offline – killing it’s Internet connectivity to the rest of the world.

Firstly, while it may have slowed down the ability for folks in Egypt to communicate rapidly with the rest of the world, and potentially organise demonstrations, it also seems to have managed to drive folk who might have otherwise stayed in front of their screens out onto the streets, where they can either generally protest at the Mubarak regime, or specifically protest about being isolated from something they now take for granted.

It certainly gives the Police something to do…

The “kill-switch” mechanism appears to have been pretty simplistic, and non-technical in implementation. It is highlighted from the Renesys, RIPE Labs, and other analysis that the main Egyptian ISPs seem to have been called on in turn by folks from the Mukhabarat (the Egyptian equivalent of the secret service) and instructed to shut down external connectivity – by taking down interfaces or BGP peers.

The lack of centralised technical measures required shows that it’s not necessarily difficult for any administration to do this – either using existing instruments in law, or just having enough agents and judges to churn out the court orders and pay folks a visit.

However, the other thing to consider is that some countries are now starting to treat the Internet as an essential service and almost fundamental right, like access to water and power.

I’ve just on the way from a visit to New Zealand (where I participated in the NZNOG ’11 conference). The NZ Government is currently embarking on a process of using Government subsidy – with the premise that this will get paid back over time – to bootstrap open access FTTH implementations in major urban areas in NZ, to the extent they should bring 75% of the country’s 4.5M inhabitants within easy reach of high-speed broadband.

The motivation behind such a move is that reliable high-speed internet access will be a cornerstone of economic growth, but that comes with the corollary that it becomes an expectation of the consumer, just like they expect the power or water supply not to go off unless it’s a genuine emergency (such as the flooding in Queensland, Australia).

However, it seems like the Government involvement could become a double edged sword, as they investment threatens to come with various regulatory strings attached – the change in funding, from a private, entrepreneurially-built infrastructure, means that the Government feels like it has a right to have a say. Remains to be seen how much of one yet, but there’s already dangerous talk of “mandatory peering”, and that sort of ilk.

As far as I can tell, there’s no talk of a massive comic-strip style busbar “kill switch” being built in NZ, and the NZ Government seem to appear like moderate and reasonable folk, but will the investment in UFB be brought to bear when the NZGovt want Internet providers to accede to their desires in blocking content or controlling access?

Back to the “Internet access as a right” for the closing few words: Flipping the question on it’s head, how would you feel if the Government shut the power off to your neighbourhood because they felt like it served their needs?

Finally, a touch of irony. I composed this blogpost from 37000ft over the Texas, thanks to the reliable and affordable in-flight internet access they provide on board Virgin America.

(While on board, I saw the announcement that Mubarak has appointed his Intelligence chief as Vice President. Says a lot, right?)

That’s how richly woven through our often already complex lives ready internet access has become. Think back a few years. People’s expectations are already changing.

Update – 31st Jan 2011

Vikram Kumar, Chief Exec of InternetNZ (the association that engages in technical and public policy issues on behalf of the NZ Internet community) has just blogged an article about the possibilities for a take-down of NZ’s external connectivity to the Rest of the World. Summary: probably unlikely.

Update – 2nd Feb 2011

Internet access in Egypt was restored in the last 12 hours, and there’s coverage of this on the Renesys Blog

1 thought on “Internet Access as a right and the Egyptian Internet Shutdown”

  1. Almost a year later, but here’s a link to a NY Times article by Vint Cerf on internet access as a right… http://nyti.ms/x8HmoD

    I tend to agree with Vint’s point – not that it’s a human right, but it it should be among expected “universal service” norms in developed countries, such as power, water and telephony.

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