President Hosni Mubarak’s decision shut down access to the Internet last night to try — unsuccessfully — to stop the tide of unrest marked the first time an entire country (minus websites for Egypt’s commercial international bank and stock exchange) has been sealed off. “It’s quite easy, as we’ve seen,” Lynn St. Amour, president of the Internet Society said from Davos. Indeed, in addition to recent efforts in Tunisia and Syria, Burma’s military leaders partially cut off access during protests in 2005 and Nepal did the same as its king battled insurgents. China cut off access to its Xinjiang region for almost a year after ethnic unrest. But how exactly does it work? In Egypt’s case it was made easier by the fact that although there are hundreds of service providers, just four own the infrastructure. Experts say newer telecommunications markets can orchestrate shutdowns relatively easily. Vodafone, one of the four internet service providers, released a statement saying, “All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Under Egyptian legislation, the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply.”
Governments also have the option of closing down routers, which direct traffic over a country’s border. But in Egypt’s case that would have permitted access from users within the country.
But “kill switches” aren’t just the province of contested regimes in the Middle East and Asia. Earlier this week, Senator Joe Lieberman brought back a bill he first introduced last summer that would give President Obama power over privately owned Internet providers and computer systems during a “national cyberemergency.” The revised version of the Lieberman-Collins bill now includes language stipulating that the federal government designation “shall not be subject to judicial review.” It also expanded the president’s purview to include “provider of information technology.” Given the government’s rush to cut off access to WikiLeaks for a few thousand embarrassing but dated diplomatic cables, it’s hard to trust their definition of a “cyberemergency.”