Egypt is becoming a test case for the Internet going dark, with only one of its main service providers operating. But the protests haven't been slowed by the lack of communications.
Renesys, a provider of Internet marketing data and security services, says the Noor Group, the ISP that serves the Egyptian credit bureau, as well as the banking, aviation and financial sectors. The Egyptian Exchange also gets its Internet service from Noor.
But Noor only has a small percentage of the market as a whole. Also, while the Egyptian government has moved to shut down local communications, Renesys says it has seen no significant disruption in communications via the fiber optic cables that connect the rest of the Middle East, Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal.
Internet access can be had via dial-up lines and some satellite links. A French non-profit, FDN, is reportedly providing access through a number there.
Though the Internet has become a venue for people to exchange information about the protests, and even an arena of conflict -- the government obviously thinks it is important enough to shut down -- some experts note that it is important not to overstate the importance of technology in the uprising.
Parvez Sharma, a documentary filmmaker who has worked a great deal in Egypt during many trips over the years, noted that most Egyptians live in poverty and can't afford computers, let alone Internet access. Besides that, street protests don't happen online, but in the real world. When you are dodging tear gas and bullets the last thing you want to do is look down at your phone, he said.
Sharma adds that most Egyptians don't have smartphones in any case, and most of the working-class city dwellers make phone calls from kiosks. Those that do have mobile phones have more primitive models. The majority of people in Cairo have not heard of Twitter or Facebook, he said. Twitter and Facebook played a role in the first two days, but now on the streets of Cairo it is people without Internet or mobile access who are the majority.
Some statistics bear this out. According to site Internet World Stats, maintained by the Miniwatts Marketing Group, total internet use in Egypt is 17 million people, about 21.2 percent of the population. Mobile phone penetration is much higher, reaching 60 million subscribers out of a population of 80 million, according to the Egyptian government. But smartphones are still a relative rarity there. Sharma adds that most of the conversations he has had with friends in Egypt over the last few days have been on landlines rather than mobile phones.
That doesn't mean social networks have no impact. But the changes they have brought may be more cultural, says Deborah Wheeler, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of several studies of the impact of technology on the region. It allowed people to experiment with expressing anger in safe spaces, she said. That, in turn made many feel that they could and should express anger via protest. (Her opinions, she says, are her own, not those of the U.S. Naval Academy).
But technology, she adds, is less important than in some cases word of mouth. And it is significant that turning off the Internet did nothing to stop the protests.
Social media also extends people's networks with others, says Jon Anderson, chair of the anthropology department at the Catholic University of America. That enhances the participation even if Facebook isn't a driving force all by itself. One parallel, he says, might be the civic groups Americans often join or even the teach-ins in the 1960s - they taught technique, which protesters could use later on.
Some protesters, in fact, have counseled others to avoid using the Internet to communicate. A manual obtained by The Atlantic called How to Protest Intelligently, translated from Arabic, explicitly says Egypt's police and internal security forces are monitoring Facebook and Twitter. The manual says it should be passed from hand to hand, and not emailed.
To contact the reporter responsible for this story call (646) 461 6917 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.