Access to leftist website Belahmar was barred on Egyptian internet service providers on Monday, 60 days since the first blockages, bringing the total number of inaccessible websites to 127 according to data compiled by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
“Access to the website was blocked a few hours ago,” Mostafa Bassiouny, managing editor at Belahmar, told Mada Masr on Monday. “At first, we thought the problem was technical, and this why we issued a statement on social media to apologizing. But after following up with the technical team, we confirmed that the website is in fact blocked,” he added.
None of the 127 websites have been officially notified of the block, and service providers have remained silent on the issue. However, the Journalists Syndicate asserted that there is ongoing communication with relevant government bodies to discuss the issue and attempt to resolve the situation.
“The syndicate will call for a meeting between board members and representatives from the blocked websites in the coming days to evaluate the content they publish, particularly those websites that have a print edition but publish different material on their online portals,” Journalist Syndicate General Secretary Hatem Zakaria told Mada Masr.
Mada Masr, which was blocked on May 24, filed a lawsuit at the State Council alongside AFTE against the communications minister and the head of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
“Mada Masr filed its lawsuit on the basis that it is a service provided that has been affected by the blocking of its services,” said Hassan al-Azhary, a lawyer at AFTE which filed its case as a service user affected by the blockage. Mada Masr’s lawsuit will appear before the State Council on August 1, and AFTE’s on October 8.
According to Azhary both lawsuits call for the disclosure of whether the ongoing website blockages are the result of an official decision, and if not, the technical reasons preventing users from accessing the websites.
“Since the first websites were blocked, this has clearly been an attempt to control the exchange of news and information,” Mohamed al-Taher, a researcher at AFTE, told Mada Masr. “They have mostly targeted journalistic and news websites, including some with limited popularity.”
“Although the focus was initially on Qatari-based websites and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, the blockage has strangely expanded to include other platforms, either by mistake or through ignorance,” Taher added. “For example, a website called Nooun, that publishes women’s interest content was mistaken for a news website called Noon Post.”
Other websites have also been blocked for brief periods, such as Sout al-Omma, two VPN websites and Open Whisper, which provides encrypted communication service through Signal application.
“Users can still access the blocked websites, through any of many VPNs, as well as any proxy,” said Taher. He added that Tor remains the best method to access the websites, as it not only bypasses the block but also maintains users privacy.
“Ultimately though, the best solution is ending the centralization of state-run networks, and moving toward a decentralized network that allows for content sharing and permits users to provide their own services and applications,” Taher said.
In June, a high-ranking source in the Communication and Information Technology Ministry told Mada Masr that the block in access to websites in Egypt was undertaken as a centralized decision by the Egyptian government rather than by the country’s internet service providers (ISP).
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) – an international network operating under the Tor Project that monitors internet censorship, traffic manipulation and signs of surveillance – published a technical report, in June, asserting that Egypt’s ISPs have been imposing the block through the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology and RST injection attacks.
DPI facilitates computer network packet filtering, the interception of online content, and internet data mining in order to identify the parties exchanging information and the nature of the information contained within data packets. A RST injection attack changes a unit in a data packet’s TCP (transmission control protocol) header, which directs the terminal points of the exchange to stop using the TCP connection and no longer send any more packets using the connection’s identifying numbers.
Access to Mada Masr’s website was blocked on several of Egypt’s ISPs on May 24 along with 20 other websites. The state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) quoted a high-level security source as saying that the block was imposed on websites that disseminated “content that supports terrorism and extremism and deliberately spreads lies,” and that “legal procedures are being taken against the sites.” Mada Masr has neither directly been informed of any specific legal charges against it, nor has it been informed of the specific authority behind the block.