e-Censorship and the Arab Spring

Ido Kenan
Translated into English by Ami Asher

Internet shutdowns, website filtering, overflow, substitution and defamation: Arab regimes and the Internet, a guidebook for dictators

Wars produce images, deliberate and planned as well as inadvertent. In postmodern warfare, warlike images are used indistinctly as raw materials for journalistic and historic documentation, propaganda, political statements, art, weapons and casus belli. A shoe is thrown at George W. Bush in front of the cameras. The Americans release footage featuring the dismembered bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons. A Danish newspaper publishes cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. News agencies air videos of Israeli flags on fire. A blurred cellular photo of Saddam Hussein hanging from the gallows. Airplanes crash into the Twin Towers shot by dozens of amateur cameramen. Terrorist groups’ PR tapes present prisoners and captives being executed. The White House uploads a photo of senior officials being briefed on Osama Bin-Laden’s liquidation to Flickr. Hosni Mubarak is shot live as he denies allegations while lying on a bed in a courtroom cage.

בכירי ממשל בחדר מצב

One of the most dramatic events of the Egyptian Revolution was not captured on film, however. It happened on Friday, January 28, late at night, three days after Egypt’s urban centers were swept by violent riots. “Urgent: Egypt has shut down the Internet”, informed Issandr El Amrani his politics and culture website, The Arabist. “Egypt leaves the Internet”, wrote James Cowie at the Renesys blog (Renesys is a company which studies worldwide Internet traffic flows), and called it “an unprecedented government act”. According to Renesys, all Egyptian Internet providers (apart for Noor Group, which provided the connection for the Egyptian stock market) were cut off from the World Wide Web. Telecom Italia Sparkle – a major provider in Egypt – reported zero Internet traffic to and from Egypt as of half past midnight. Other reports also referred to the blocking of text messaging services.

The media have trouble documenting the Internet visually.  In TV stories about hackers, dating websites, or other present-day Internet fads, you always see a person sitting next to a computer, rolling his mouse or typing on his keyboard. Newspapers show photos of web pages in browser displays, usually outdated Explorers (if this fails to strike you as odd, imagine every news story about a TV show accompanied by frames from the show as displayed on TV screens). News websites present illustration photos at worst, and screenshots at best.

How do you capture Internet shutdown on camera? In my opinion, the image most powerfully etched in collective memory was a graph produced by the Arbor Networks data security company, illustrating Internet traffic between Egypt and the rest of the world on January 27 and 28. You don’t have to be an expert in networks or graphs to realize that this was the online equivalent of a nationwide blackout.


The Dictator’s Dilemma is “the idea that authoritarian governments cannot have their Internet cake and eat it, too”, blogged Zeynep Tufekci, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, following the Egypt’s Internet shutdown. “The dilemma is often framed as this: ‘If they allow Internet to spread within the country, it poses a threat to their regime. If they don’t, they are cut off from the world – economically and socially”. Tufekci believes that the threat posed by the Internet against such regimes does not necessarily lie in its ability to spread information they are attempting to censor and conceal from the public, but its ability to support the formation of a “counter-public” that is outside state control. “[I]t is not that people are waiting for that key piece of information to start their revolt – and that information just happens to be behind the wall of censorship – but that they are isolated, unsure of the power of the regime, unsure of their position and potential”.

Theoretic and academic debates about the role played by online social networks in the upheavals in the Arab world and in Iran will most likely continue for decades to come. But in real time, the rulers of these countries had no doubt – or time to doubt – the Internet’s lethal potential. They acted against the web with all the means and audacity available to dictatorships.

Total Internet shutdown
The trump card used by Arab dictatorships against the opposition. This is the drastic step taken by Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and other Middle-Eastern countries to prevent citizens from obtaining and distributing information, and organizing rallies. As Tufekci blogged it, “How do you censor five million Facebook accounts in real time except to shut them all down?”

The added bonus is that the eyes of the world so curious to see what’s going on inside your kingdom will become blinded, nor will outsiders be able to support the rebels. It not too difficult to shut down the Internet in a dictatorship, where telecommunication companies are either directly owned by the state or operate subject to heavily restricted licenses.

Even such blocking is not airtight, however. On the day Egyptian Internet was blocked, for example, WikiLeaks twitted that according to some reports, opposition activists were faxing WikiLeaks bulletins into Egypt in order to bypass the blocking. Others sent instructions on how to connect to the web using Noor – the only provider left online – cellular phones and calls to providers in other countries. Still others broadcast information about events in Egypt through amateur radio stations.

Website filtering and blocking
Tunisia, the first Arab Spring domino to fall, blocked websites long before the revolution, and did this on a massive scale, as in China and Iran. When WikiLeaks published US diplomatic cables with detailed descriptions of corruption in the Tunisian regime, the latter denied any access to the whistleblowing website and others which reported its findings. Consequently, Anonymous hacktivists attacked Tunisian government websites. Public outrage broke out when policemen seized 26 year-old Mohamed Bouazizi’s vegetable stand, to which he reacted by self-immolation. It took just one more month for President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali to announce he will not run for another term in office and that the Internet will no longer be censored. Immediately afterwards, he fled to Saudi Arabia were he sought political asylum. Shortly after that, video sharing websites, including YouTube, were unblocked.

Iranian authorities moved against Twitter and Facebook following the key role played by these social networks in the uprising in the run-up to the June 2009 elections: opposition activists used them to distribute information and electoral propaganda.  “We are disappointed to learn of reports that users in Iran may not have access to Facebook, especially at a time when voters are turning to the Internet as a source of information about election candidates and their positions”, wrote Facebook spokeswoman in politically correct corporate corporate-speak, as though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were a democratic ruler who happened to stumble over the Internet cable.

Right after the election, the State Department asked Twitter to reschedule its planned maintenance downtime so as not to obstruct communications among Iranian opposition activists. Twitter acquiesced. Twitter cofounder Biz stone explained the move by pointing to the “role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran”, but denied this was done following the department’s request: “[T]he State Department does not have access to our decision making process. Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world”. This failed to impress the Iranians, who talked of an imperialist conspiracy, said Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation. According to Ross, the Iranians viewed Facebook and Twitter as American companies, tools of the US government. Ross responded jokingly by wishing that were true.

Middle-Eastern activists and their supporters worldwide mobilized to find ways of bypassing these blockings, including the installation of Tor anonymity software and using proxy servers to route connections through non-censoring countries. American scientists are currently working on Telex: software designed to conceal information from banned websites within traffic from safe sites.

Overflowing the Internet with pro-government contents and attacking the opposition
As early as 2000, Iran created the Montazery.com website in an attempt to divert traffic from Montazeri.com, the true website of Iranian dissident ayatollah under house arrest who had written a scathing memoir against the Khomeini and the Islamic Republic. In 2008, it announced it would unleash an “army” of 10,000 bloggers from the Revolutionary guard. In early 2011, it launched its first cyber police unit to fight “Internet crimes”. Its police chief General Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam said it will take on the “anti-revolutionary” dissident groups that use online social networks to organize protests against the president. “Through these very social networks in our country, anti-revolutionary groups and dissidents found each other and contacted foreign countries and triggered riots”, said Moghaddam, referring to the protests against the presidential election results in 2009.

Last February, Iranian activists posted a list of security tips for demonstrators and arrested members of the opposition. Its writers may have learned the hard way. Many tips had to do concealing digital information. Apart from specific tips on how to prevent authorities from getting hold of sensitive information, demonstrators were warned against the perils of Facebook. Those interrogated were told to expect policemen and undercover agents to ask them about their Facebook accounts and to prepare for such questioning by changing their family name on the social network and apply strict privacy settings. In particular, the post warned activists against friendship requests by unknown individuals, because of the cyber army’s habit of requesting friendships using fake photos to view the information on activists’ Facebook pages.

Mubarak’s regime also acted against its web critics. One day after the Internet was shut down in Egypt, right before the violent demonstration in a timing that seemed deliberate WikiLeaks published American embassy cables about Egypt, including reports on the Egyptian blogosphere. According to the leaked documents, the Egyptian government arrested, imprisoned, tortured and sexually abused several bloggers who had criticized it, offended Christianity or Islam, or where associated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement. In one cable, a US diplomat reported that the Egyptian government fears young and technologically savvy bloggers associated with the Brotherhood due to their ability to mobilize mass support for the movement and organize public rallies through the Internet.

Alternative national network
Instead of trying to block “problematic” website, a practice that is about as efficient as trying to filter sand out of the ocean, why not start an alternative national network, cut off from the World Wide Web, with exclusively pro-government content? This was exactly the planned announced last April by Head of Economic Affairs Ali Aghamohammadi: “Iran will soon create an Internet that conforms to Islamic principles, to improve its communication and trade links with the world. We can describe it as a genuinely ‘halal’ [kosher] network aimed at Muslims on a[n] ethical and moral level”. According to the Minister of Information and Communications Technology Reza Taghipour, the network was to be launched by the end of August, with its own search engine planned for 2012. According to Aghamohammadi, initially the network will be operated in tandem with the World Wide Web, which will continue to serve ministries, large corporations and banks. Eventually, though, the halal network will completely substitute WWW, and Iran will offer other Islamic countries to join it.


Muammar Gaddafi’s regime has finally been toppled. Although information about the upheavals flowed online from Libya to the rest of the world, from February to late August most of the population was disconnected. Upon the rebels’ takeover of the capital Tripoli, they entered the international communication cable’s control center and restored the Internet. The website of Libyan Telecom and Technology congratulated Libya “on emancipation from the rule of the tyrant”. Israeli journalist and blogger Omer Kabir twitted: “The Internet is back in Tripoli after six months. We can now expect the riots to subside as the entire country checks the inbox”.


Ido Kenan is a freelance blogger (Room 404) and journalist. For more than ten years, he has been writing about the Internet, web life and digital culture. I thank Itamar Shaltiel for his help in writing this article.