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Egypt Flips Domain Name System Kill Switch

Published January 29, 2011

Reports state a political crisis in Egypt that led to civil unrest has resulted in Egypt's government cutting off Internet access to much of its population in order to stem the tide of protests, some of which are being coordinated via social media.

Described as "unprecedented in Internet history" by James Cowie of Renesys, an Internet intelligence company,  an estimated 93% of Egyptian networks are currently unreachable.

It's thought the Egyptian government was able to carry out the action by shutting down DNS (Domain Name System) servers used by Egyptian internet service providers. 

When you enter a domain name into your browser or click on a hyperlink, the browser contacts a name server in order to get the numerical IP address equivalent and where the associated site or service is located.  Those name servers are the workhorse of the Domain Name System and by denying access to them, access to web sites and other online services stops. The only way around the issue is to use an alternative Domain Name System configuration outside of an affected area - something that most Internet users wouldn't know how to do.

Whether this was an automated shutdown triggered directly from government facilities or required the co-ordination of the ISPs involved is being hotly debated, but developments since the incident began seem to point to ISPs being contacted to carry out the action as part of their operating agreement with the Egyptian government.

The action by the government was likely made much easier by the fact there are only a handful of major carriers in the nation that Egypt's dozens of ISPs rely on for connectivity.

The Domain Name System wasn't the only communications infrastructure to be shut down - cell phone networks were also reported to be out of action.

Egypt has one of the highest rates of Internet usage in Africa.

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