Egypt's connections blackout was planned since April 2008

Salma El-Wardani , Monday 30 May 2011

Three Egyptian ministries and a slew of associates planned and practiced how to severe Egypt's mobile, internet and communications services years before 25 January, according to an administrative court verdict

Connections blackout
A man sits in an internet cafe in Cairo. The Egyptian government has accomplished a first in Internet history -- cutting off all outside access(Photo: REUTERS / Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

The decision to cut mobile, SMS and internet services in Egypt on 28 January wasn’t a spontaneous one triggered by the peaceful mass demonstrations of 25January. Rather, it was planned, premeditated before the events, a court verdict reveals.

"The ministries of interior, telecommunications and mass communications in association with the three [Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat] telecommunications companies operating in Egypt and the internet providers performed a series of experiments on how to severe connections as early as April 2008," reads the verdict summary issued by an Egyptian administrative court and obtained by Ahram Online.

“The first experiment was back in April 2008 while the second one was on 10 October 2010, three months before the revolution; it sought to test cutting Egypt’s internet connection, blocking some websites and implementing procedures to prevent access to the internet in one or more governorates,” stated the verdict to the lawsuit filed in April by the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights.

The centre took action on behalf of other plaintiffs against the three telecommunications companies – and a number of current and former Egyptian officials – seeking compensation for the damages they suffered due to the shutdown of communications.

The verdict contradicts earlier claims by telecommunication companies that the terms of their operating licences left them little option but to agree to government demands.

In a former interview, Hatem Doweidar, Vodafone Egypt CEO, told Ahram Online that security officials met with mobile phone and internet service providers on 25 January and were asked to cut voice calls and text messages in specific areas around Cairo, especially Tahrir Square.

During the second meeting on 27 January, service providers were ordered to cut voice calls across four governorates – Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura. Starting 28 January, all internet services and Blackberry services were cut. At 9:30am on 29 January, providers were ordered to return voice services.

The earlier experiments had also included slowing or blocking some websites, designing a quick plan to collect information on the users and their passwords, how the three telecommunications giants could cut services in specific regions such as a city, governorate or the whole country, cutting bulk SMS coming from abroad and blocking SMS in Egypt.

"The first experiment was implemented during the events of the Mahalla uprising on 6 April 2008. At that time the ministry of interior established an emergency unit in Ramses Central [communications’ offices] to face what it described as the use of provocative elements of SMS and internet services to spread false rumours that would eventually lead to chaos.

“In the second experiment, implemented in October 2010, they [the three ministries and their associates] established an emergency unit whose role, among other things, was to cut-off the internet in cities or entire governorates, block particulate websites, extract information about netiznes, shutdown mobile services in telecommunication companies as well as Bulk-SMS and make sure these companies could quickly respond to requests by security authorities.”

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