The Egyptian government has called on telecommunications providers in the country to block access to the Internet in response to widespread civil unrest.
Vodafone Egypt, one of the largest operators in the country not controlled by the state, today said it has disabled access following pressure from authorities.
"All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas," the company said in a statement. "Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it. The Egyptian authorities will be clarifying the situation in due course."
According to Renesys, a company that monitors Internet infrastructure, one of the few Internet service providers that is still operational in Egypt is Noor Group. "Why was Noor Group apparently unaffected by the countrywide takedown order?" wrote CTO James Cowie on the company’s blog earlier today. "Unknown at this point, but we observe that the Egyptian Stock Exchange is still alive at a Noor address".
Egypt has been in a state of crisis for several days, with citizens calling for the government to step down. Issues affecting Egypt include high unemployment, rising food prices and official corruption.
The role that websites and social media play in provoking civil uprising is hotly debated topic, but they are certainly an important tool for dissidents to organise their protests and to broadcast their cause to the outside world. Blocking access to such sites is now a common practice among governments seeking to supress dissent.
The recently deposed Tunisian government, already a keen censor of the Internet, attempted to impose even stricter censorship during the uprising earlier this year. According to press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders, Tunisian authorities blocked the Facebook profiles of opposition bloggers and journalists as the protests gathered pace.
Internet censorship is not constrained to autocratic governments, however. A number of payments providers including PayPal, Visa and Mastercard blocked donations to whistleblowing website Wikileaks at the end of last year, reportedly under pressure from the US government. An investigation commissioned by Visa found that Wikileaks had not broken any the company’s terms and conditions or any laws in Iceland where it registered, the Associated Press reported earlier this week.
In November 2010, Egyptian opposition groups complained that their Facebook pages had been deleted without their consent. Facebook denied that there was any political subtext to its actions, however. It said that it temporarily took down the pages in question due to the "status of an account used to administer two particular pages" and "an issue related to a script used on a further page".