By Asher Moses
As Egypt’s government attempts to crackdown on street protests by shutting down internet and mobile phone services, the US is preparing to reintroduce a bill that could be used to shut down the internet.
The legislation, which would grant US President Barack Obama powers to seize control of and even shut down the internet, would soon be reintroduced to a senate committee, Wired.com reported.
It was initially introduced last year but expired with a new Congress.
Senator Susan Collins, a co-sponsor of the bill, said that unlike in Egypt, where the government was using its powers to quell dissent by shutting down the internet, it would not.
“My legislation would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency,” Collins said in an emailed statement to Wired. “It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat.”
The proposed legislation, introduced into the US Senate by independent senator Joe Lieberman, who is chairman of the US Homeland Security committee, seeks to grant the President broad emergency powers over the internet in times of national emergency.
Last year, Lieberman argued the bill was necessary to “preserve those networks and assets and our country and protect our people”.
He said that, for all its allure, the internet could also be a “dangerous place with electronic pipelines that run directly into everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to government and industrial secrets”.
US economic security, national security and public safety were now all at risk from new kinds of enemies, including “cyber warriors, cyber spies, cyber terrorists and cyber criminals”.
Although the bill was targetted at protecting the US, many have said it would also affect other nations.
One of Australia’s top communications experts, University of Sydney associate professor Bjorn Landfeldt, had previously railed against the idea, saying shutting down the internet would “inflict an enormous damage on the entire world”.
He said it would be like giving a single country “the right to poison the atmosphere, or poison the ocean”.
The scale of Egypt’s crackdown on the internet and mobile phones amid deadly protests against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak is unprecedented in the history of the web, experts have said.
US President Barack Obama, social networking sites and rights groups around the world all condemned the moves by Egyptian authorities to stop activists using mobile phones and cyber technology to organise rallies.
“It’s a first in the history of the internet,” Rik Ferguson, an expert for Trend Micro, the world’s third biggest computer security firm, said.
Julien Coulon, co-founder of Cedexis, a French internet performance monitoring and traffic management system, added: “In 24 hours we have lost 97 per cent of Egyptian internet traffic”.
Despite this, many Egyptians are finding ways to get access, some using international telephone numbers to gain access to dial-up internet.
According to Renesys, a US Internet monitoring company, Egypt’s four main internet service providers cut off international access to their customers in a near simultaneous move at 2234 GMT on Thursday.
Around 23 million Egyptians have either regular or occasional access to the internet, according to official figures, more than a quarter of the population.
“In an action unprecedented in internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the internet,” James Cowie of Renesys said in a blog post.
Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr were all off air but Cowie said one exception was the Noor Group, which still has 83 live routes to its Egyptian customers.
He said it was not clear why the Noor Group was apparently unaffected “but we observe that the Egyptian Stock Exchange (www.egyptse.com) is still alive at a Noor address.”
Mobile telephone networks were also severely disrupted in the country on Friday. Phone signals were patchy and text messages inoperative.
British-based Vodafone said all mobile operators in Egypt had been “instructed” Friday to suspend services in some areas amid spiralling unrest, adding that under Egyptian law it was “obliged” to comply with the order.
Egyptian operator ECMS, linked to France’s Telecom-Orange, said the authorities had ordered them to shut them off late Thursday.
“We had no warning, it was quite sudden,” a spokesman for Telecom-Orange told AFP in France.
The shutdown in Egypt is the most comprehensive official electronic blackout of its kind, experts said.
Links to the web were cut for only a few days during a wave of protests against Myanmar’s ruling military junta in 2007, while demonstrations against the re-election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 specifically targeted Twitter and Facebook.
Egypt – like Tunisia where mass popular unrest drove out Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month – is on a list of 13 countries classed as “enemies of the internet” by media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“So far there has been no systematic filtering by Egyptian authorities – they have completely controlled the whole internet,” said Soazig Dollet, the Middle East and North Africa specialist for RSF.
Condemnation of Egypt’s internet crackdown has been widespread.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Cairo to restore the internet and social networking sites.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network with nearly 600 million members, and Twitter also weighed in.
“Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community,” said Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman.
Twitter, which has more than 175 million registered users, said of efforts to block the service in Egypt: “We believe that the open exchange of info & views benefits societies & helps govts better connect w/ their people.”
US digital rights groups also criticised the Egyptian government.
“This action is inconsistent with all international human rights norms, and is unprecedented in internet history,” said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology in the United States.