Communication Technologies That Governments Can — And Cannot — Easily Squash
Widespread street protests and violence in Egypt have spooked the government into shutting down the Internet and disrupting phone service, according to many reports. This draconian measure of severing the country's electronic ties both within and without has been described as unprecedented in the modern, interlinked world.
In times of upheaval, governments have often historically tried to quell dissent by limiting their citizenry's means of organization. Other recent examples of unrest in Iran and Tunisia fueled in part by the Internet have suggested that electronic means of subversion can pose a genuine threat, however, to unpopular governments.
Here is a ranking of the vulnerability of various methods of communication – ranging from the high- to the low-tech – to being intercepted, blocked or cut off by a government that believes it is in peril.
6) Radio and television stations
These older means of electronic communication have proven especially prone to government clampdowns. Officials need only to turn off the transmitter of radio wave frequencies for radio and television sets that use antennas to receive their information.
Cable-based television, of course, relies on the transmission of signals via wires in the ground, but this too can be easily cut off by a government, as described next.
5) The Internet, cell phones, landlines
The Internet, cell phones and cable television depend in most instances on the same landline infrastructure that supports non-wireless phone calls. These landlines, in turn, are operated by telecommunications companies, whom in Egypt's case are legally bound to follow the government's decree to stop the signal flow.
"Everything from Twitter to texting all go through a small number of carriers," said Andrew Odlyzko, a mathematician at the University of Minnesota who studies Internet-related issues.
As such, "any standard communication technology can be easily shut down," Odlyzko said.
In Egypt, when it comes to online matters, the task is made still easier by the fact that only four Internet service providers supply much of the country with Internet access.
"Egypt shut down Internet communication because there are not very many connections, nor phone companies, so there are only a few wires, so to speak," said Martin Libicki, an analyst in cyber issues for the Rand Corporation.
Egypt also presents a particularly good geographical scenario for the rattled government to squash Internet and cell phone communications, experts say. The country's population of 80 million is largely concentrated around the Nile River and its delta, and then surrounded by desert, so cell phone networks from neighboring countries do not leak in and offer Egyptians a way to stay online.
4) Satellite communications
A much trickier source for a government to silence is satellite-based communications, including phone, Internet and television
Phone and Internet service via satellite is expensive, however, and little used compared to conventional land-based options. "You need a certain amount of money [for satellite communication], and if you can afford it, you're probably not one of the protesters because you're doing well," said Libicki.
Satellite television, on the other hand, is popular in Egypt, as well as across the Arab world and in the United States. But satellite television is not configured as a two-way means of communication. Instead, it is designed for broadcasting, Libicki pointed out. And given the immense expense of placing satellites into orbit, those who control what is ultimately beamed down from space are governments and large companies.
3) Shortwave radio
A means of communication among would-be revolutionaries that is not very vulnerable to being cut off is shortwave or ham radio .
These setups, which can be battery-powered and hence portable, have been used by spies to transmit messages back to their home countries right under the noses of unwitting host governments. "Shortwave radio is a staple of World War II and Cold War-era spy novels," said Odlyzko.
To silence ham radio communiqués, a government would have to dispatch perhaps several agents with detectors in order to triangulate the location of a shortwave radio transmitter, and then physically seize or destroy the equipment, Odlyzko said.
Very few people around the world have the equipment and training, not to mention a government license (required in the U.S.) to operate shortwave radios, however. Rand's Libicki called shortwave radio an "esoteric profession," and thus the technology is not particularly well-suited to getting a message out to the distraught masses.
2) Fliers, CDs and tapes
A decidedly low-tech way to get the word out is to write up or print fliers and banners. Anonymous protest-encouraging leaflets and well-produced packets with instructions on how to peacefully oppose the government have been distributed in Egypt, according to various reports.
A more complex means of communication is to record audio or video information on a form of media, such as a compact disc or a cassette tape, the latter of which figured prominently in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
All of the above items, of course, are very difficult to intercept on an individual basis, and so have remained viable means of fighting the power, so to speak, now as in times past.
1) Face-to-face communication
As long as one can speak and move about with some freedom, the human voice remains the most difficult means of communication to silence.
Governments including Egypt's in the present upheaval have imposed curfews in an attempt to limit peoples' ability to congregate and spread news verbally. Yet as the long history of the downfalls of rulers – or whole governments – at the hands of an enraged and engaged populace show, sometimes a revolutionary tide cannot be turned.