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Getting Egypt online

January 31, 2011

The Egyptian government has tried to stifle communication by cutting the entire country off the Internet. European activists are slowly bringing some back - by offering dial-up connections from abroad.

Man at an Egyptian Internet cafe
Egypt has been largely offline since FridayImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

With the protests in Egypt spiraling out of control, the government in Cairo is trying everything possible to undermine the channels of communication between the activists.

Since Friday, nearly all Egyptian Internet connections have been severed, and many foreign journalists working in-country are using expensive satellite phones to get online.

However, over the weekend, various activists around the world - including many in Europe - have set up dial-up access that Egyptians can use.

In the days before high-speed web access, the only way to surf the net was to use a modem via a telephone landline to connect with a provider.

FDN, a small Parisian Internet service provider (ISP), still has a dial-up option as a backup should its normal DSL connections not work.

"So we did have an up-and-running access via dial-up and when we woke up Friday morning and saw that the Internet was down in Egypt, our first idea was – hey, don't we have a dial-up system?" said Benjamin Bayart, FDN's president, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "They should just use that!"

Traffic all weekend - via France

Old telephone
Landlines - not as useless as you might thinkImage: Fotolia/Andrey Zyk

Bayart added that his company made a few tests to make sure the service was still working and also accessible from a foreign landline. The phone number was then spread via Twitter.

However, the obvious problem was that most people in Egypt still don't have access to Twitter, much less the Internet, to get the number. But, he added, members of the Egyptian diaspora and French people with friends in Egypt passed it along by calling their loved ones across the Mediterranean.

"People have been using our number from Egypt since Friday evening," Bayart explained, saying they saw a substantial amount of traffic over the weekend. "The first connection appeared at about 7 pm, Friday evening and the service has been used all weekend."

FDN's president declined to provide any figures as to how many people from Egypt were using their service.

"It would be an opportunity for the Egyptian government to block international phone calls," he said.

Other activists have compiled other dial-up lines from the United States, Sweden, Norway, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Johan van der Stoel, the head of Inbellen.org, a Dutch ISP, told Deutsche Welle he wasn't even aware that his service was being touted as a European lifeline for Egyptians trying to get back online.

"Of course our service can be used from abroad," Stoel said. "The only thing is that people would have to pay for an expensive international call from Egypt to the Netherlands, but from a technical aspect, using our service from abroad is no problem whatsoever."

An obsolete technology?

On Friday, an online list of dial-up numbers in Europe and the US popped up online and began spreading - it was compiled by Telecomix, a loosely organized group of internet activists.

A Twitter user
Online activists have been using platforms like Twitter to spread European dial-up informationImage: picture alliance/dpa

"When we heard on Thursday night that the Internet in Egypt was being shut down, we immediately started looking to for dialup services in Europe," said Christopher Kullenberg, a Telecomix member, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Orignally founded in Sweden, the group today has small nucleus of Internet activists from all across the world.

"Basically this is a technology from the 1990s, which today is obsolete – but it still exists and there are still providers offering it," he said. "So we collected information - phone numbers and usernames - from all kinds of providers and spread it in the Internet through Facebook and Twitter."

Marcin de Kaminski, another Telecomix member, said that the organization doesn't currently know how many Egyptians are using its dial-up services as it "didn't turn on" the login statistics.

Initially, Kullenberg added, the idea was that Egyptian expats would pass on those numbers back to friends in Egypt.

But the group went even further - members collected Egyptian fax numbers that they found on the Internet and randomly fired off faxes to those numbers – hoping that at the other end there might be someone who would pass on those dial-up number within Egypt.

The Internet: 'powerful' but 'dangerous'

"The Internet is becoming more and more relevant for movements like what we now see in Egypt or before that in Tunisia," Kullenberg observed. "Also in Iran for instance, or in China, the web is an important tool for civil activists and political opposition."

"Yet at the same time, using the Internet to that end is also getting more dangerous. Facebook and Twitter for instance are fairly easy to monitor. We know that in Tunisia, the police hacked into Facebook accounts to see who is writing what or who is friends with whom. So it's important that people know they have to be careful what they're doing online. The Internet has a very positive effect – but it's also very dangerous."

The dial-up numbers will continue to be active throughout the coming days, European ISP operators say.

FDN even wants to expand its efforts by offering the service within Egypt.

The French ISP is looking for Egyptians who would offer their private landline number with the calls then being forwarded to France- that way the caller from Egypt would pay for a local call, while the international call could be paid by FDN.

Then, the dialup connection to the Internet would work just as well as when people would call directly to France - providing Egyptians with a slow, but steady way back online.

Author: Andreas Illmer
Editor: Cyrus Farivar