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Schwartz On Security: The Right To Social Networks

Blocking Internet access, cellular networks, or Web sites is never a good idea -- whether in Egypt or at home.

Does cutting off social networks, cell phones, text messages, or even the Internet at large block a revolution, or merely fuel the flames of discontent?

With events in Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Egypt, and elsewhere still unfolding, it's unclear what the short-term or long-term changes will be. Political protests in Iran in mid-2009, in what many commentators saw as the first Twitter-enabled revolution, hardly produced regime change. But they may have proved inspiring.

As John Gilmore famously asserted, "the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." That observation was originally made about Usenet software, and how newsgroup messages would find their way to a destination even if a node was removed.

But the idea has gained currency in other ways. "If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever," Gilmore says.

Can people route around oppressive or undemocratic regimes? In Egypt, protestors have been coordinating their resistance using anonymous Facebook pages, Twitter, and mobile phones, among other tools. But as clashes between police and demonstrators intensified in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak's government on Thursday ordered all access to mass communications -- Internet, cellular networks, SMS -- blocked.

By numerous measures, Egypt was entirely off the Internet grid. "The government didn't simply block Twitter and Facebook (an increasingly common tactic of regimes under fire), but rather they apparently ordered most major Egyptian providers to cease service via their international providers, effectively removing Egyptian IP space from the global Internet and cutting off essentially all access to the outside world via this medium," says Earl Zmijewski, VP and general manager of Internet intelligence firm Renesys.

That state of affairs was also proven -- somewhat ironically -- by the precipitous decline in spam volume emanating from Egypt. "According to our statistics, the amount of spam received from Egypt in the last two days has dropped by 85%," said a Sunday blog post from Chester Wisniewski, a senior security adviser at Sophos Canada. "While I'm not advocating this as a method to stop the spam problem, it seems to confirm media reports of the extent to which Internet access is currently available -- or unavailable, as it were -- to the Egyptian people."

While spam declined, the protests continued, as did word of what was happening inside Egypt, in part thanks to some innovative workarounds. For example, Twitter, Google, and SayNow introduced a speak-to-tweet service to let people inside Egypt call a phone number and have their messages relayed to the outside world as a tweet with the hashtag #egypt. Protestors could also use the phone numbers to relay messages to each other via voicemail.

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