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When Egypt Went Offline, Why Did the U.S. Embassy Go With It?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, February 11 2011

The website of the American embassy in Cairo was unresponsive during Egypt's Internet blackout.

When it comes to Egypt, attention today is, of course, on the fact that Hosni Mubarak has handed over power. But from a historic 18 days that contained so many quirks and twists of a social, political, and technological nature, here's yet more one question that's been hanging in the air: why, when the Mubarak regime famously disconnected Egypt from the Internet two weeks ago yesterday, did the website of the U.S. embassy in Cairo suddenly disappear from the Internet?

Chart from Renesys showing Egypt's Internet networks disconnecting from the global network on January 26th.

The answer is simple. "The site was hosted in Egypt," says Katie Dowd, director of new media for the U.S. State Department. "So when the switch got flipped, it went down." On a check at just before midnight on Thursday, January 28th, the site was dead, and Dowd posted a note on Twitter late afternoon saying that the site was back up -- creating a window of about 16 hours of down time.

Actually, "down time" is too mild a thing to call what happened to the U.S. Embassy Cairo. The nature of the Internet makes it so that gaps in its architecture are routed around with maximum efficiency. But the flip side is that when the Mubarak government decided to flip that switch on Egypt, the Internet promptly routed around Egypt without giving it much further thought. Jim Cowie is CTO of Renesys, the Internet intelligence company, and it the blog post he posted on January 27th that drew the world's attention to the fact that Egypt had shut down its Internet connections to the rest of the world. To the routers that control Internet traffic, it's as if the country never existed. "It's Internet amnesia," says Cowie. And because the American embassy in Egypt lived entirely within Egypt's boundaries in cyberspace, it got instantly forgotten, too.

What the U.S. Embassy Cairo's website looked like back in May, before it moved to the State Deparment's centralized content management system.

But the fact that the U.S. Embassy Cairo site came back up online at least four full days before the rest of Egypt exposes a project that the U.S. State Department has underway to shift the way the United States' diplomatic world exists online. Over the last handful of years, the State Department has been shifting the .gov web presences of its hundreds of embassies scattered around the world to one, centralized content management system infrastructure based in the United States. Egypt "had very little left to do," says Dowd, but the transfer was not yet complete. Thus, the takedown at the hands of the Mubarak government.

The State Department's shift to a common CMS is a response to the ad hoc history of U.S. diplomatic web presences around the globe that saw embassies, satellites to the mothership back in Washington and sometimes loosely tethered ones at that, throwing websites up online as they saw fit. The earliest copy of a U.S. Embassy Cairo website captured by the Wayback Machine comes to us from 2003 (shown below right), when just over a half of million of Egypt's then 75 million people were regularly online. Where once embassy sites were cobbled together locally and often hosted by a local vendor, the new system gives the State Department the ability to push out, through RSS, standardized content to local embassies, such as the latest news on what Secretary Clinton or President Obama has had to say on foreign affairs. The centralization drive isn't always entirely welcomed by embassies on the ground, says Dowd, given their eagerness to serve up to the local population -- whether, say, Egyptians or Americans living abroad -- content that they've tailored for their unique circumstances.

The U.S. Embassy Cairo's website circa 2003, via the Wayback Machine

Embassies can still pick and choose many of the particulars of their site, says Dowd, but nearly every U.S. embassy anywhere on the planet will eventually share the same font, color scheme, and minimalist template of every other American embassy, from Belize to Burundi. In the aftermath of last years devastating earthquake in Haiti, says Dowd, "our offices here in DC were able to constantly update [the website of the American embassy in Port au Prince] even though the staff was busy and deployed out in Haiti at the time."

Besides the syndication opportunities the new centralized system opens up for State Department headquarters, there's additional security that comes along with being a domain based in the United States, something that's probably going to get more significant than less when we consider how Anonymous and others have ramped up efforts of late to militarize web presences by targeting them for take downs, as we've seen with everything from Wikileaks to Tunisia. The State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative throws its weight behind the idea that the Internet is a powerful play in modern global politics. Where the U.S. embassy in Tehran's actual physical structure became a battleground during the hostage crisis of the late '70s and early '80s, we may well see U.S. embassy websites get pulled into debates and tensions, though with less significant effect, given that the bulk of the critical information on embassy websites has to do with where you go to get a visa or your passport renewed.

What looks like today

Renesys's Cowie sees upsides and downsides with the centralization of American embassy websites. With the increase in broadband speeds in many places, accessing a U.S.-based site from some far-flung part of the world might not have been the agonizingly slow exercise it may once have been -- especially with content distribution mechanisms that cache copies of the site on servers closer at hand. "But there are still a lot of philosophical reasons for supporting the local Internet industry," says Cowie.

In the end, the State Department's challenge when it comes to what the American diplomatic apparatus looks like on the Internet is part of a global awakening to the Internet as something not hardly merely technological, but with considerable social and political significance. "Political instability is just one more thing that can happen to the Internet," Cowie says. Indeed, there are a thousand questions to be asked and answered. Dowd points to the fact that embassies the world over are firing up Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts. Who's registering these accounts? What happens when that staffer gets shipped to the other side of the world? What's the relationship between the U.S. embassy in Venezuela's Twitter account and Foggy Bottom?

Indeed, amidst all the chaos and upheaval in Egypt, the American Embassy in Cairo has been tweeting away.