Egypt's Internet Shutdown a Wakeup Call for CIOs

Reading the news of Egypt's Internet crackdown, CIOs around the world may be wondering how their companies would fare if such a situation happened in their home countries.

Reading the news of Egypt's Internet crackdown, CIOs around the world may be wondering how their companies would fare if such a situation happened in their home countries.

Get Internet Access When Your Government Shuts It Down

Especially with the increased adoption of cloud-hosted applications and IT computing services, the notion of a countrywide Internet access blackout is bound to rattle IT executives.

And it should, according to Eric Paulak, a Gartner analyst. "This scenario isn't so far-fetched. It's just that you don't necessarily hear about it," he said in a phone interview.

Virtually every country's government reserves the right to temporarily nationalize and control what's considered critical infrastructure, which usually includes mobile networks, fixed-line telecommunications and Internet backbone systems, Paulak said.

Governments can invoke that right during national emergencies, whether they be natural disasters, terrorist attacks or any other incident that qualifies as such under a country's legal code.

"Theoretically this can happen anywhere, although the likelihood is pretty low," Paulak said. "However, because of that legal authority most countries have, the Internet, the mobile networks and the fixed-line phone networks could be cut off."

"Do you [as a CIO] need a contingency plan? Absolutely," he added.

A first step for CIOs and business managers should be to do an honest, realistic assessment of the possibilities that their company could find itself, through no fault of its own, in a nationwide Internet blackout.

"Companies doing business in any country should assess potential loss of Internet access as part of their risk management strategy and factor it into the cost of doing business," said industry analyst Rebecca Wettemann from Nucleus Research, via e-mail.

This is especially true for companies doing business in countries with a volatile political climate, where governments typically have tight control over electronic communications and don't think twice about seizing control of them, said IDC analyst Al Hilwa.

"If you are a CIO in this type of country, then clearly you need to be prepared for this type of edict," he said via e-mail. "The nature of our modern media technology is that in many ways it is an electronic tiger. In many countries, if things heat up, the government can just pull the plug on the whole thing."

Even in the U.S. recently there has been quite a bit of discussion about giving the president an "Internet kill switch" for disabling Internet services during national emergencies, noted industry analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research.

"If organizations are reliant on cloud-based services, this would be a critical problem," Osterman said via e-mail.

Such a scenario is one reason to work into cloud-based deployments a series of offline capabilities that would allow users to continue working even if they lose Internet access, he said.

"For example, having the ability to work on documents while the cloud is not available is a major benefit. It won't allow employees to communicate, but will offer them to remain at least somewhat productive," Osterman said.

An obvious precaution is to have, as a backup, satellite-based phones and Internet access, which are much harder for governments to block, said Gartner's Paulak.

At best, governments can declare satellite communications illegal, but that's usually an empty threat because it's very difficult to monitor and enforce, he said.

"If you're an enterprise trying to come up with a backup solution, the recommendation in these markets is to have satellite phone capabilities and some satellite data [transmission] capabilities," Paulak said.

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