Internet access in Egypt has been reduced to virtually zero after the government took the almost unprecedented step of shutting down the country's online networks.
Nearly all of the major network providers have cut off their service as street protests against President Hosni Mubarak continue. Online organisations that track internet service reported that the concerted drop-off in connection across the country took place late on Thursday night.
As of yesterday, only 327 Egyptian networks remained on the internet, according to the networking firm BGPmon. The previous day there were 2,903, meaning 88 per cent of the Egyptian internet has been taken offline. Problems were also reported with mobile telephone networks, particularly with the sending of SMS messages.
The internet blackout is seen by many as a government-led effort to stop news and images from being broadcast from the country to the rest of the world via social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Although the lack of internet access is unlikely to hamper professional journalists, armed with satellite phones, it will undoubtedly hit citizen journalists and bloggers who attempt to report on the increasingly violent protests.
Some internet service providers (ISPs), such as Vodafone-EG and Internet-Egypt, have shut down their entire network. Only one ISP, Noor Data Networks, remained relatively unscathed, with two of its 85 networks taken offline. It is not clear why, but experts point out that Noor Data Networks powers the Egyptian stock exchange.
Egypt is not the first country to limit its citizens' internet access. North Korea has never allowed people access to the internet. Governments in Iran and Tunisia recently reacted to protests by partially restricting internet access.
"This is a completely different situation from the modest internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make internet connectivity painfully slow," said Renesys, which monitors global web traffic, in a blog post.
"The Egyptian government's actions ... have essentially wiped their country from the global map. What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80,000,000 people from the internet? What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets? This has never happened before, and the unknowns are piling up."
Heather Blake of Reporters Without Borders said: "This is a very dangerous situation. It raises serious issues of press freedom and human rights violations. I worry that this could set a trend. Tunisia is obviously the example the Egyptians have followed. How many other governments will see this and think that they can silence protests by simply shutting down the internet?"
Whatever the purely political impact of the unrest in Egypt proves to be, it is pretty much the last thing a fragile world economy needs now. It will trigger more inflation, higher interest rates to tame it, falls in stock markets and a further hit to standards of living.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday met the military commanders who could yet determine his future, as David Cameron and US President Barack Obama held talks and called for an “orderly transition” to a democratic government in Egypt.