What's even more troubling is news that one American company is aiding Egypt's harsh response through sales of technology that makes this repression possible.
The Internet's favorite offspring -- Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- are now heralded on CNN, BBC and Fox News as flag-bearers for a new era of citizen journalism and activism. (More and more these same news organizations have abandoned their own, more traditional means of newsgathering to troll social media for breaking information.)
But the open Internet's power cuts both ways: The tools that connect, organize and empower protesters can also be used to hunt them down.
Telecom Egypt, the nation's dominant phone and Internet service provider, is a state-run enterprise, which made it easy on Friday morning for authorities to pull the plug and plunge much of the nation into digital darkness.
Moreover, Egypt also has the ability to spy on Internet and cell phone users, by opening their communication packets and reading their contents. Iran used similar methods during the 2009 unrest to track, imprison and in some cases, "disappear" truckloads of cyber-dissidents.
The companies that profit from sales of this technology need to be held to a higher standard. One in particular is an American firm, Narus of Sunnyvale, Calif., which has sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" equipment.
Narus, now owned by Boeing, was founded in 1997 by Israeli security experts to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients.
The company is best known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system which is allegedly used by the National Security Agency and other entities to perform mass surveillance and monitoring of public and corporate Internet communications in real time.
Narus provides Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment (DPI), a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.
Other Narus global customers include the national telecommunications authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- two countries that regularly register alongside Egypt near the bottom of Human Rights Watch's world report.
Anything that comes through (an Internet protocol network), we can record," Steve Bannerman, Narus' marketing vice president, once boasted to Wired about the service. "We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on; we can reconstruct their (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls."
Other North American and European companies are selling DPI to enable their business customers "to see, manage and monetize individual flows to individual subscribers." But this "Internet-enhancing" technology has been sought out by regimes in Iran, China and Burma for more brutal purposes.
In addition to Narus, there are a number of companies, including many others in the United States, that produce and traffic in similar spying and control technology. This list of DPI providers includes Cisco (USA), Procera Networks (USA), Allot (Israel), Ixia (USA), AdvancedIO (Canada) and Sandvine (Canada), among others.
These companies typically partner with Internet Service Providers to insert DPI along the main arteries of the Web. All Net traffic in and out of Iran, for example, travels through one portal -- the Telecommunications Company of Iran -- which facilitates the use of DPI.
When commercial network operators use DPI, the privacy of Internet users is compromised. But in government hands, the use of DPI can crush dissent and lead to human rights violations.
Setting the Bar High for DPI Sales
Even Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on this problem.
"Internet censorship is a real challenge, and not one any particular industry -- much less any single company -- can tackle on its own, " Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote in a 2009 letter to Rep. Henry Waxman, then chair of the House Commerce Committee. "Efforts to promote freedom of expression and to limit the impact of censorship require both private and public sector engagement."
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt's government "not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media."
Bono Mack's letter and Clinton's statement echo Free Press' call for a congressional inquiry into the issue. But this is just a start.
Before DPI becomes more widely deployed around the world and at home, the Congress ought to establish clear criteria for authorizing the use of such surveillance and control technologies.
The power to control the Internet and the resulting harm to democracy are so disturbing that the threshold for using DPI must be very high.
Today we're seeing the grave dangers of this technology unfold in real time on the streets of Cairo.
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UPDATE ONE: I appeared on Al Jazeera English. They sent a reporter to the Narus offices only to be turned away at the door. Apparently Narus believes that this issue will go away by simply ignoring the many media inquiries. (Reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Times have told me that Narus has refused to respond to their inquiries as well.)
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UPDATE TWO: This article in February 6 Daily Mail indicates that activist Twitter and Facebook accounts are being tracked by the state security police.
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UPDATE THREE: Gordon Crovitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "Western telecommunications companies were instrumental in closing off the Internet in the country almost entirely," forced to abide by Egyptian telecom law which "gives the country access to networks during a state of emergency."
Then there was this:
In 2009, [Vodafone] gave Egyptian authorities data to identify participants in the previous year's antigovernment riots. More than 20 people were arrested. "Regulation can be a Trojan horse," Annie Mullins, Vodafone's head of global content standards, explained at the time. "For parts of the world that aren't subject to democracy, regulation can be used as a masquerade for state intrusion."And what of corporate compliance with such crackdowns? Mullins does not answer.
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UPDATE FOUR: AOL contributor Marty Phillips-Sandy profiles one outspoken online activist who was detained by security forces, allegedly, for using Facebook to organize protests.
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UPDATE FIVE: Marko Papic and Sean Noonan (of SRATFOR) mention President Obama's YouTube interview where he mentions our basic right to connect. I dug this up and transcribed the Q&A (You can watch it here. The segment begins at 16:50):
YouTube Question: Dear President Obama, Regarding the current situation in the Middle East & Egypt over the past two days, what do you think about the Egyptian Government blocking social networks to prevent people from expressing their opinions?
Obama: Well, let me say first of all that Egypt has been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues. They made peace with Israel. President Mubarak has always been helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I have always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform, on political reform, economic reform is absolutely critical to the long term well-being of Egypt…
I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And that I think is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.