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As anti-government protesters planned a day of massive demonstrations in cities throughout Egypt on Friday, state authorities took dramatic steps that effectively shut down the Internet and wireless communications networks in that country.
The government prevailed on the nation's communications providers to shut down service in an apparent attempt to disrupt the protesters, who had been using mobile devices, SMS messages and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to coordinate their activities.
Around 12:30 a.m. local time, organizations that monitor global network activity observed nearly all major Egyptian service providers close off traffic routes to their networks, effectively taking the country off the global grid.
Internet intelligence firm Renesys documented the withdrawal of about 3,500 Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes, rendering Egyptian Internet addresses unreachable and cutting off the exchange of data traffic with the rest of the world.
Renesys CTO James Cowie called the move "unprecedented in Internet history," pointing to recent protests in Tunisia and Iran, when the government crackdown on the Internet was far more limited.
"This is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow," Cowie said. "The Egyptian government's actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map."
Another monitoring firm, BGPmon, estimated that 88 percent of Egyptian Internet traffic had been halted this morning.
"What's different in this case as compared to other 'similar' cases is that all of the major ISPs seem to be almost completely offline," analysts at BGPmon said. "Whereas in other cases, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were typically blocked. In this case the government seems to be taking a shotgun approach by ordering ISPs to stop routing all networks."
Both monitoring firms identified a single Egyptian service provider, Noor Data Networks, that appeared to be unaffected by the shutdown.
The Egyptian government has also targeted wireless communications, ordering carriers to shut down service in certain parts of the country.
"All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas," U.K.-based Vodafone, which operates Vodafone Egypt, said in a statement. "Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it. The Egyptian authorities will be clarifying the situation in due course."