How Egypt is getting onliner

 Egypt remains officially offline following the government's mass internet disconnection last week, but savvy citizens assisted by groups of online activists are still using a number of methods to access the web.

On Thursday night the Egyptian government instructed the country's ISPs to cut off their connections to the outside world. Only one network, the Noor Group, remained online - it's suspected Noor was spared because it runs services for the Egyptian stock exchange.

Egyptians can still access the internet through Noor, but as a small ISP it has limited capacity. It's also highly likely that any unencrypted data sent via Noor is being monitored by the government, so Egyptians are turning to the anonymising system Tor to protect themselves. Tor hides your IP address by bouncing data requests around the computers of three other randomly selected users, making it impossible to trace internet activity back to its source. Downloads of the software have "skyrocketed" in the last week, reports Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum, who encourages people sympathetic to the Egyptian plight to set up their own Tor servers.

"We tend to have 20,000 downloads a day, but after the protest we had 120,000," says Karen Reilly, development director for Tor. Users who download the software can easily act as a relay for others by ticking a box in Tor's setup menus, but they should be aware that this opens them up to the entire Tor network, which can include people distributing child pornography and other illegal materials.

Reilly admits that this is an issue, but makes it clear that Tor users should fully understand how the software works before downloading it. "There's very little you can do if people aren't going to read the documentation," she adds.

Those who don't want to use Tor can still get online by returning to the days of dial-up. Although Egyptian ISPs will reject any attempt to connect by modem, international phone lines remain open, if congested, and many Egyptians are getting online by dialling into international ISPs. It's expensive and slow, but it works.

These efforts are being assisted by We Rebuild, a group of online activists dedicated to ensuring free access to the internet. "We try to find the technological means of keeping the internet running," explains Christopher Kullenberg, who helped found the group at a party in Sweden in 2009.

Kullenberg and other members of We Rebuild search online for instructions on connecting to ISPs' old and little-used dial-up networks. They then pass on the details to people in Egypt via Twitter, chat rooms and wikipages, as well as offline channels such as amateur radio. Phone numbers for ISPs in the US, Italy and Norway have been shared in this way, without the networks' explicit permission, but the French Data Network has actively encouraged Egyptians to connect.

We Rebuild's methods are reminiscent of another online activist group, Anonymous, which last year coordinated a number of attacks against the perceived enemies of WikiLeaks. Kullenberg admits there are similarities, but doesn't agree with the Anonymous approach. "Anonymous attacks could worsen the situation," he says, as the remaining Egyptian connections are too fragile to resist.

It's not easy to verify that Egyptians can successfully connect to these dial-up services - Kullenberg says he doesn't even own a modem to attempt a connection - but until Egyptian ISPs reinstate their networks, it seems to be the best way to get online. "Sooner or later they have to switch it on, or the Egyptian economy will go bankrupt," says Kullenberg. "It may take another week, or be switched on in the next hour - it's hard to estimate.


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