Why Bringing down the Internet + Phone System was a Super-Bad Idea

From a superficial standpoint, it makes perfect sense:

“The protesters are using the Internet and mobile phones to coordinate and collaborate. And they are using it to share information with the outside world. And the rest of the people are able to get news from sourced not directly controlled and manipulated by our own pliant media. So we should shut down their means of communication immediately”.

Dumb idea (but it’s in the rule book to stop a coup d’etat, and it seems like a logical thing to do…).

Egypt switched off the Internet pretty much from 27 Jan – 2 Feb – the chart is great (source: http://cpj.org/internet/2011/02/internet-connectivity-has-been-restored.php).

The reason for bringing down the net is to prevent the, say, 5% of the population who are currently both aware of the issues, and are deeply active in it. That is a pretty small percentage of the population, and certainly not enough in itself to justify a system-wode response.

Unfortunately for the regime, switching off the entire network annoys EVERYONE. EVERYONE. Now doctors cannot look up things on the net, people’s Facebook accounts stop working, no one can find out the Bundesliga or Premier League football scores. The Internet is totally interwoven into people’s lives, and switching it off only serves to energize and annoy the entire population, including many people who would be the regimes logical supporters.

Mobile phones are the same. Even if wealth countries use separate phone systems for the police, firemen, etc, it is quite normal to coordinate using the same mobile phone traffic as everyone else. Turning off the phones and text messaging, again, just annoys EVERYONE.

Moreover, the internet and mobile phone system was always going to have to get switched back on. How long could it possibly be turned off for?? A week? A month? A couple of years???? It was always going to be turned on, and soon as that happened, people would start using it – precisely to find out more information and become involved. The act of disruption serves only to propagate unrest, not to quell it.

So, lesson learned:

a)    if you are a regime in danger of toppling, this tactic is not going to work, but you are going to try it anyway


b)    if you are in the protest movement, plan for communication disruption before it happens, as it gives you an incredible opportunity to scale up your activities during the switch-off, and certainly afterward

Again, some thoughts on ‘the science of spread’ – applied to real world problems.


  1. North Korea – tourist destination opening soon | Mark Turrell - Changing the World of... - February 14, 2011

    […] Likewise, when the authorities try to clamp down on these activities, they are likely to disrupt all kinds of activity, the protestors and normal people. This will effectively throw gasoline onto the sparks. Just like when the Egyptian state switched off the Internet in the early days of the protest movement in 2011. Instead of quashing the resistance, they energized the entire populace (see my thoughts on why turning off the internet was a bad idea). […]

  2. Googling a revolution in revolutions (full text) « Managing Uncertainty by Nicholas Davis - February 22, 2011

    […] leading regimes to consider censorship as a tool of controlling populations. However, as Mark Turrell pointed out, in the case of Egypt it could have been the shutting down of the internet and phone systems that […]

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