World Web War I: Why Egypt’s Digital Uprising is Different

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We’ve seen cyberwar declared before, but the one playing out in Egypt is my own candidate for World Web War I. Hosni Mubarak fired the first shot,  switching off the internet and mobile phones after crude attempts to block Twitter and Facebook fell apart. The web fought back in ways we haven’t seen before, and it’s winning.

It no longer counts as remarkable that Egyptians organized their uprising on social media. What’s new is the Newtonian reaction to Mubarak’s attempt to throw a “kill switch” on all electronic communications. Netizens from around the world are tracking Egypt’s security measures and defeating them one by one with TOR proxies (which offer anonymity and circumvent network filters), ham radio links, satellite communications and subtle attacks on the technical infrastructure of Egyptian state security. Here’s a hint from net freedom activist Jacob Appelbaum, who tweets under the handle @ioerror: “If there is a single network in all of the world worth sniffing right now – it’s certainly the MOI [ministry of intelligence] network!” Who do you reckon is smarter, Mubarak’s IT department or a volunteer consortium of the world’s best hacktivists? (More on See TIME’s complete coverage of the Middle East revolt)

It is hard to overstate the significance of the private sector’s enlistment against a sitting government. Internet service providers in Europe and elsewhere are deliberately thwarting Egyptian censors by distributing phone numbers and free access codes (here’s one example) for anyone who needs a dial-up connection from Egypt. (Land lines still work fine.) Over the weekend came the stunning news that Google and Twitter have joined forces to design and deploy a new way to tweet that bypasses the wall Mubarak built. Anyone in Egypt can dial a phone number, leave a voicemail, and the text is transcribed and posted with the #EGYPT hashtag. No computer required. Chris Soghoian points out that neither company is taking much economic risk, since they have no expensive infrastructure in Egypt, while Vodafone, which caved in to Egyptian censors, “likely has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment located in the country.” Even so, the corporate intifada is a milestone.

First Wikileaks, now Egypt. Activists and geeks, standing together, are demonstrating powers beyond the reach of government control.

UPDATE: Maybe not entirely beyond the reach. Looks like Mubarak’s secret police have snatched Google’s Middle East marketing chief off the street in Cairo. If you know his whereabouts, Google asks that you call +44 20 7031 3008.

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