Update: Vodafone confirms role in Egypt's cellular, Internet blackout

As Egypt lurched toward revolution amid the fiercest protests since its 1977 bread riots, one service that's been of great importance to civil organizers has been increasingly hard to access: micro-blogging site Twitter.

This has led British-based Vodafone Group PLC, which held a contract with the Egyptian regime for its telecommunications infrastructure, to declare on its own Twitter account that it was not behind the apparent mass-censorship.

"We didn't block twitter - it's a problem all over Egypt and we are waiting for a solution," Vodafone Egypt announced yesterday. Prior tweets replied to other users who'd accused them of aiding the government.

"No blocking from our side! It's global," they said.

"Maybe overload or heavy congustion [sic]," another message protested. "No blocking to any website from our side."

Twitter confirmed late Tuesday that Egypt was indeed blocking access to their service.

Access to the US-based social network Facebook was also reportedly cut off by early Tuesday.

As with regimes in Tunisia and Zimbabwe that clamped down on the flow of information amid civil unrest, online protest group "Anonymous" took it upon themselves to attack the Egyptian government's communications infrastructure in a stream of DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks.

"Anonymous wants you to offer free access to uncensored media in your entire country," the asynchronous group declared in a press release published to Facebook. "When you ignore this message, not only will we attack your government websites, Anonymous will also make sure that the international media sees the horrid reality you impose upon your people."

In December, "Anonymous" was successful in taking down Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and other websites of organizations that refused to do business with secrets outlet WikiLeaks.

While some characterized their efforts as a form of cyber-terrorism, others noted that many participants consciously opted into the attacks, downloading a piece of software that points at a predetermined server and simply asks it to do what it's made to do: serve pages. When these networks are comprised of volunteers, DDoS attacks are more akin to sit-in protests than terrorism.

More recently, the group got in to the business of real-world demonstrations by calling for a global day of protest on Jan. 15 to defend free speech.

Egyptian activists embarked Wednesday on a second day of street action in not just Cairo, but in Assiut, Suez and Alexandria as well, even while authorities vowed to prevent further protests.

'Social responsibility of the private sector'?

On the Egyptian government's website, which was still online amid attacks by "Anonymous," a "sponsors" page (screenshot) described the dictatorship's ties to Vodafone Egypt.

The government's goal, the site said, was "to further develop and promote the usage of e-Government services that are offered through its Government Services Portal."

"In that light, the Ministry of State for Administrative Development was looking for a strategic public-private partnership (PPP) to finance an awareness campaign for e-Government services, as well as develop a mobile service delivery channel as a base for mobile (m)-Government."

After a bid process that urged competition between Egypt's leading telecom providers, Vodafone was selected, the government explained, because of the following reasons (emphasis added):

  • It presented the best offer to sponsor the campaign.
  • To acknowledge the social responsibility of the private sector.
  • To aid in achieving the government’s strategy in encouraging the use of ICT as a delivery channel for efficient government services.

It was not immediately clear what "social responsibility" efforts this partnership was meant to highlight. An email to Vodafone's corporate relations seeking comment on the developing situation went unanswered.

In the wake of Iran's "green revolution," the relationship between Western technology providers and the country's oppressive regime became painfully apparent when The Wall Street Journal revealed that Siemens AG and Nokia Corp. aided the development of a digital censorship apparatus.

"If you sell networks, you also, intrinsically, sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them," a spokesman for the two firms' joint venture told the paper. He suggested the regime's "monitoring center," which even allowed deep-packet inspection and information tampering through Internet back-doors, was a standard part of a larger telecom contract with Iran.

It was unclear whether Vodafone's government-sponsored network worked similarly in Egypt.

Video from the tumultuous scenes in Cairo yesterday showed protesters actively standing up to mobile water cannons and chasing large squads of riot police through the streets.

Despite some 20,000 to 30,000 police being deployed in the city, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched to Tahrir Square and successfully occupied it, chanting in unison: "The people want the ouster of the regime."

The country's president, Hosni Mubarak (pictured with US President George W. Bush, above), has been in power since 1981.

With prior reporting by David Edwards.