Egypt's move to block Twitter a sign of social media influence

2009 protests in Iran showed how potent Twitter can be during civil unrest

The Egyptian governments move to shut down access to Twitter in the country indicates how powerful social media can be as a protest tool. By Jaikumar Vijayan The Egyptian government's decision to shut down access to Twitter appears to be an acknowledgement of just how potent social media tools can be amid the widening civilian unrest.

In a brief message earlier this week, Twitter announced that Egypt had blocked access to its site from inside the country soon after the start of large scale protests against President Hosni Mubarak.

Swedish video streaming service Bambuser, said that its service too had been similarly blocked inside Egypt in what it claimed was an attempt by the government to control the news agenda in the face of mass demonstrations.

A story in The Local , an English language newspaper in Sweden quoted Bambuser's CEO as saying that about 10,000 videos from the country were posted on Bambuser during last year's general elections in Egypt.

On Wednesday, Herdict , a Web accessibility-monitoring project run by Harvard University s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said there were several reports of Facebook being inaccessible from inside Egypt as well.

The blocking of such sites appears to be driven by concerns about them being used by citizens to rally more opposition against the government and to circumvent its attempts to control the news.

In 2009, for instance, Twitter emerged as an important communications tool during a harsh government crackdown in Iran, following disputed elections in the country. When authorities in Iran shut down various communication mediums, including phone lines, Facebook ,YouTube videos and text messaging systems, thousands of Iranians began using Twitter to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

The unrest in Iran showed for the first time how Twitter could also be used to quickly mobilize a volunteer cyber-army to launch denial of service attacks against key government and commercial targets.

During the Iran protests, Twitter was widelyb used to direct to users to online links that users could click on to participate in DoS attacks. Other tweets contained links which users could use to participate in a denial of service attacks, while yet others directed users to sites from where they could download tools for initiating so-called Ping and Syn flood attacks against specific sites.

So far, there appears to be little sign that Twitter is being used quite as broadly by those calling for an end to the rule of Mubarak in Egypt.

According to Internet monitoring firm Netcraft, a loosely affiliated group of volunteer hackers called Anonymous has been trying to orchestrate distributed denial of service attacks against key Egyptian websites -- with little success so far.

Some of the earlier DDoS attacks carried out by Anonymous had used Twitter feeds to announce targets to the automated attack software, Netcraft analyst Paul Mutton said in a blog post on Wednesday. But for now, IRC appears to be the primary control point, he wrote.

Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst at IT-Harvest said that the latest attempts to block social media in Egypt shows how statecraft, policy making, even elections are being impacted by free and open access to information and people.

Governments do have the ability to deploy technology to block access to particular services, Stiennon said. But the long-term efficacy of such measures in the face of social media services is questionable, he said. In the long term they must block access to the Internet altogether to prevent people from communicating with each other, Stiennon said.

As China has discovered, blocking access to information can always be circumvented by ad-hoc networks of proxies set up by volunteers such as the Tor project," he added. "The Internet genie is out of the bottle. All governments are experiencing disruption to the old way of operating."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan , or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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