Egypt has embarked on a new wave of online censorship, blocking news websites and killing off VPN services in order to limit its citizens' access to information.
Over the past three weeks, the Egyptian authorities have blocked access to more than 50 news websites, including Al Jazeera and local newspapers Daily News Egypt, Al-Borsa, and Al-Mesryoon.
On Monday, as more and more Egyptians turned to VPN services as a way to get around the blocks, ISPs started blocking access to the websites of companies offering such services. Meanwhile, the newspapers themselves have tried to bypass the censorship by hosting their content on different domains.
The Daily News Egypt, for example, for a while used the thedailynewsegypt.com domain instead of its previous dailynewsegypt.com – although that address has now also been shut down.
The censorship comes as the tech community killed off a proposal earlier this month that would have punished African governments for shutting down the internet in their country by withholding new IP addresses.
The start of censorship coincided with a report, published in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper on May 25, in which the authorities claimed to have the right to block the newspapers through anti-terrorism powers.
In that report, the government of Egypt used examples of other countries blocking websites as justification for its own censorship. It did not mention the Egyptian Constitution, however, which most legal scholars agree actively prohibits limiting access to information. It also does not provide much by way of legal justification.
Egypt's official news agency also quoted a high-level security official as saying 21 websites had been blocked and Reuters quoted an official at Egypt's telecoms regulator, the NTRA, as saying: "So what if it is true? It should not be a problem."
The situation it being monitored and reported on by a number of organizations, most notably the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). When contacted by the AFTE, service providers claimed that the website outages were the result of website failures rather than content blocking. The government of Egypt has also refused to formally acknowledge the blocks.
Egypt started what has become a worrying and growing trend in internet shutdowns and censorship, particularly in Africa, when it shut down the entire country's internet during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
At the time, the government sent troops to the homes of executives of mobile phone operators and ISPs in order to coerce them into turning off internet access. Subsequently the government introduced a system where it was able to command internet providers to turn off internet access, or block specific services or websites, without having to point rifles in people's faces.
Up until then, many African governments had assumed that the famously flexible internet was impossible to shut down or control. But Egypt's government demonstrated that it was possible to enforce control over internet access within a country. Since then the problem has grown, with Cameroon shutting off all internet access in a troubled region of the country for several weeks, and Iraq even using its system to kill the internet during school exams.
The United Nations condemned the practice last year, and the recent proposal from the company that allocates IP addresses in Africa – Afrinic – sought to introduce a cost to governments that undertake such blocking by stopping the allocation of new IP addresses for 12 months.
Many in the tech community, while agreeing with the problem of internet shutdowns, argued that introducing punitive measures into their policies would unnecessarily politicize their role and set up an inevitable dangerous confrontation with governments. The policy was shot down earlier this month, and its main proponent narrowly lost his seat on the Afrinic board. ®