Why Twitter is mum on Egypt block

The company doesn't want to comment on persistent reports that Twitter.com is inaccessible amid anti-government protests.Perhaps it's still in the dark about what's happening.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

Update at 5:05 p.m. PT: Twitter has confirmed that it has been blocked in Egypt. According to the @TwitterGlobalPR account: "We can confirm that Twitter was blocked in Egypt around 8am PT today. It is impacting both Twitter.com & applications." Also: "We believe that the open exchange of info & views benefits societies & helps governments better connect w/ their people."

Egypt's flag.

As fierce anti-government protests in the Egyptian capital of Cairo began to escalate, word broke out this morning that government forces had blocked access to Twitter's Web site. Twitter users throughout the country reported that they could not access the Twitter.com Web site, though third-party clients were still functioning.

But when CNET contacted Twitter for comment to find out whether they could say if Twitter was blocked in Egypt, no statement was provided--just a link to an evidently new Twitter account, @TwitterGlobalPR, which in turn directed those interested in finding out about an alleged block to consult a site called HerdictWeb.

HerdictWeb, run by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society under the auspices of digital academic Jonathan Zittrain, keeps a crowd-sourced log of reports about which sites are inaccessible in which countries. According to HerdictWeb around 11 a.m. PT on today, seven reports of Twitter inaccessibility in Egypt had been logged.

The @TwitterGlobalPR account, which seems to have been freshly launched on Tuesday, explained more later in the day. "We're not the experts on how Twitter is being used in highly developing situations 1000s of miles from our comfortable HQ in SF," it explained. "The experts are those using Twitter on the ground and those coordinating with them around the world."

Mark Belinsky, the co-director of the nonprofit Digital Democracy, told CNET that Twitter's reluctance to say anything more is probably because Twitter indeed does not know for sure what the situation is.

"Egypt is going wild and I'm not sure we'll really have a sense of it until the dust clears," Belinsky said via e-mail. "Hard to say whether or not it's just getting overloaded though...(physically severing) Internet was done in Burma after a while but it usually leads to international uproar. What they generally do is slow down the signal to a crawl, as they did in Iran, which they can then say was infrastructure failure or any other made up excuse."

Belinsky, who with Digital Democracy works to bring social media and other new tools to underserved populations, said that an outright block is uncharacteristic of Egypt's government, which has been ruled by President Hosni Mubarak for the past three decades. If it's indeed true, that means that the protests against Mubarak's reign are being taken particularly seriously.

"It would be an interesting and desperate move for Egypt because their state security apparatus has been very good at infiltrating communication instead of blocking it," Belinsky explained. "They go so far as to ask for the passwords to the e-mail accounts of dissidents and log-ins for their Web sites instead of censoring them. There are some tech-savvy youth there, hence tweeting through proxies as soon as they encounter some difficulties. But after a critical mass, organizing is done more on the streets than online and the authorities already know the details about who the key organizers are in the crowd."

In 2008, when Egyptian youth used Facebook to organize a rally of support for striking textile workers, police cracked down on the in-person gathering but access to Facebook in Egypt was not cut off despite rumors that year that the government was looking to encroach upon use of the social network.