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The Dollars and Sense of Egypt's Internet Suppression

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, January 31 2011

[Housekeeping note: The pace of events in Egypt seem to suggest reintegrating our coverage into the main blog, but do check out our "Revolution Watch" archive as a play-by-play on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the early days of the Egyptian uprising and the role of digital activism therein.]

Not surprisingly, the Mubarak government's decision to largely shut down the Internet in Egypt is having ripple effects beyond simply where it has to do with people using online tools to talk and organize revolution. Egypt's economy is in many ways a modern one, and much of what the country does to make money travels through the tubes. Either the Mubarak government somehow didn't forsee that shutting down the Internet would do damage to Egypt's economy, including cutting off Egyptians from the supplies they need to live a normal daily life, or they considered the Internet so much a political threat to make it worth their while to nonetheless plunge the country into an Internet blackout. The New York Times' Nicholas Kuish and Souad Mekhennet report:

Khaled M. Hanafy, an economic adviser to the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in Egypt, the umbrella group representing all the chambers in the country (or some four million businesses), said that while they had no figure for the economy’s losses, the cost of the disruptions had reached the billions of dollars.

“The effect was immediately felt by businesses because so many transactions are completed by the Internet, and particularly the sectors that deal with the outside world,” Mr. Hanafy said. Asked if the chamber’s leadership had raised concerns with the government, he said: “Nowadays, there is no government in office. You don’t have anyone to talk to.”

At the office of the Egyptian Navigation Company, a shipping business in a large, curving building across from the port, employees said the goods lifted off the ships with cranes were not leaving the premises.

The flip side of what happened in Egypt is that Internet advocates can make the legitimate argument that the Internet isn't just a democratizing force, but an economic one. That's a useful protection in places (China, for example) where government's might otherwise be eager to restrict a medium that simply makes it easier for people to talk and organize. That the Internet's a real moneymaker is something that the medium has going for it, as far as its potential as a political medium, giving it some additional protection over and above what other communications platforms might have. Of course, when you have a regime willing to just pull the plug on the whole enterprise when the going gets tough, a la Mubarak's Egypt, all bets are off.