FP Explainer

Can Governments Really 'Block' Twitter?

Not really. The domain name is inaccessible, but it's not that hard to get around.

View a slide show of this week's protests in Egypt.

This week, Egypt became the latest Middle Eastern country to see massive anti-government street demonstrations. As in Tunisia earlier this month and Iran last year, activists have made heavy use of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook -- and the Egyptian regime has responded harshly. On Jan. 25, Twitter officially confirmed reports that access to its site had been blocked. Is it really possible to do that?

Yes, but not very effectively. The Egyptian government appears to have been blocking access to the Twitter.com domain name, most likely with the assistance of the country's Internet-service monopoly TE Data. Later in the day on Tuesday, Egyptian authorities began shutting down wireless data services entirely in the areas where the protests were taking place in order to prevent demonstrators from logging on. (Facebook has also reportedly been suffering outages on Jan. 26, though the company denies that it has been blocked.) As is its habit, the Egyptian government hasn't created a redirect page for the site, but merely slowed traffic down to a crawl to give itself plausible deniability. Late in the day on Jan. 26, the site was reportedly accessible again.

Unfortunately for the censors, Twitter allows other companies to develop their own applications using its programming interface. This has led to the development of a plethora of tools that allow users to post to Twitter without ever pointing their browsers to Twitter.com. These third-party clients still appear to be functioning in Egypt. There have even been reports of activists updating Twitter through the professional résumé-sharing site LinkedIn.

It's also still not prohibitively difficult to access Twitter.com. The site has multiple IP addresses, not all of which are blocked by government censors. Savvier Egyptian web users can access one of these addresses without using the site's domain name at all. Another easy workaround is to use a virtual private network, or VPN, which fools the system into thinking you're outside Egypt.

Unlike other authoritarian states such as China or Iran, Egypt does not have a particularly extensive web-filtering operation in place. The decision to block Twitter may be a sign of how serious the regime is taking the protests, though even now the restrictions seem somewhat haphazard and arbitrary. For instance, while Bambuser, a site used to stream video to one's Facebook account from a mobile phone, has been blocked, YouTube, which has been used extensively by the protesters, is still accessible.

Some regimes have been more aggressive in counteracting the effects of social networking. During the Tunisian protests, a malicious program hosted by the country's Internet service providers was found to be stealing users' login information and passwords. In 2009, a group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army, thought to have links to the Iranian government, hacked Twitter so that it instead displayed anti-American propaganda.

Generally, the Egyptian authorities prefer to allow opposition members to share information online so that they can closely monitor them. In some cases, they've gone as far as to ask online activists for their email and website passwords rather than shutting them down. But with riots spreading throughout the Arab world in the wake of Tunisia, the powers-that-be may have decided that blunter methods were called for.

Thanks to Mark Belinsky, co-director of Digital Democracy, and Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.  

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

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