In the dark

On January 25, 2011, an estimated 50,000 protesters flooded into Tahrir Square, a circular road junction that is the focal point of the city’s downtown district. Called to action at mosques, universities and colleges, and online, the protesters represented a coalescence of interests, from supporters of political Islam to liberal pro-democracy groups, feminists, and trade unionists, each with their own grievances against the regime of then-president Hosni Mubarak. Tahrir Square — “Tahrir” means “liberation” in English — became the revolution’s epicenter, occupied day and night: at times a celebration, at others a battleground. As Egyptian security forces responded with violence and the death toll mounted, it served as a place of collective mourning.

Caught off guard by the scale of the uprising, the security forces tried to shut down the protesters’ tools of communication. Twitter was essentially blocked from the evening of January 25 onward, and Facebook was blocked the following day. The restrictions weren’t wholly successful; information kept leaking out, and people still found ways to organize online. In the early hours of January 28, the government pulled the plug. Internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile operators were ordered to suspend their services, and power was cut to the main internet exchange point — the physical meeting point of ISPs’ traffic — in Cairo. For five days, Egypt was almost completely disconnected from the global internet.

Since then, the internet has been switched off more than 1,000 times in 60 countries, by regimes and governments desperate to control the information space. This project, the culmination of six months of reporting, tells the story of state control over the internet, from total blackouts to creeping censorship.

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