This excellent graphic from Arbor Networks shows how Internet traffic to and from Egypt fell off a cliff between 27 and 28 January 2011. At about the same time mobile phone operators in Egypt reported that they were required to close down their networks in certain areas of the country. Vodafone Egypt reported on 30 January 2011 (on its Group website, as its local website was unavailable outside of Egypt) that it had resumed voice call services.
The response in many parts of the world was understandably negative, particularly as the Internet blackout prevented contemporaneous reports coming out of Egypt on social media networks such as Twitter or Facebook. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was widely reported to be urging the Egypt Government to restore communications.
Could the UK Government do the same thing: order an Internet blackout and mobile phone network shutdown?
The Communications Act 2003 contains a broad power that could be used by a Secretary of State to close down the Internet, at least by ordering UK-based communications providers to close any international gateways. Section 132 begins:
132 Powers to require suspension or restriction of a provider’s entitlement
(1) If the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds for believing that it is necessary to do so—
(a) to protect the public from any threat to public safety or public health, or
(b) in the interests of national security,
he may, by a direction to OFCOM, require them to give a direction under subsection (3) to a person (“the relevant provider”) who provides an electronic communications network or electronic communications service or who makes associated facilities available.
(2) OFCOM must comply with a requirement of the Secretary of State under subsection (1) by giving to the relevant provider such direction under subsection (3) as they consider necessary for the purpose of complying with the Secretary of State’s direction.
(3) A direction under this section is—
(a) a direction that the entitlement of the relevant provider to provide electronic communications networks or electronic communications services, or to make associated facilities available, is suspended (either generally or in relation to particular networks, services or facilities); or
(b) a direction that that entitlement is restricted in the respects set out in the direction.
Whilst the word “reasonable” gives any affected communications provider the hope that a capricious direction of the Secretary of State could be reined in by an urgent judicial review, what amounts to a critical threat to public safety or, especially, national security is not a judgement a court is likely to wish to overturn. In any event, Section 132 can itself be considered unnecessary in the light of Part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.
This part of the 2004 Act replaced the Emergency Powers Act 1920. It is highly recommended reading for any conspiracy theorist or anyone deeply cynical about the ability of politicians to act reasonably and sensibly in the event of any serious emergency affecting the UK. In summary, the 2004 Act gives the Executive extraordinary powers to make emergency regulations. Providing by regulation that internet service providers must deny access to international gateways or particular websites or servers could easily be achieved.
Mobile Phone Network Shutdown
The Secretary of State would not even need to consider making emergency regulations under the 2004 Act in order to shut down mobile phone networks. A direction made under Section 132 of the Communications Act 2003 would suffice. Each of the mobile phone operators has in their Wireless Telegraphy Act licences a provision in the same or substantially the same form as the following:
Ofcom may in the event of a national or local state of emergency being declared require the Radio Equipment to be modified or restricted in use, or temporarily or permanently closed down either immediately or on the expiry of such period as Ofcom may specify. Ofcom shall exercise this power by a written notice served on the Licensee or by a general notice applicable to holders of this class of Licence. (See Ofcom’s Template 2G Licence.)
So once Ofcom got the direction from the Secretary of State, it would have to do the dirty work and order the mobile phone operators to close down their networks.
What about human rights, you might ask? Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is supposed to grant a right to freedom of expression, isn’t it? However, as even Wikipedia’s Article 10 page
helpfully points out, this is not an unqualified right. Where in accordance with the law (see above) and necessary in a democratic society, the right can be restricted.
So, before you get too outraged about the Internet blackout and mobile phone shutdown in Egypt, consider this: arguably the legal tools are all available for the UK Government to do exactly the same in the UK right now.