The state blocked access to the websites of economy newspapers Daily News Egypt (DNE) and El-Borsa on Saturday and Sunday as part of its ongoing attempt to exercise control over online platforms. The list of blocked websites also extended to secure internet browser Tor on Saturday.
Business daily El-Borsa was printed and distributed on Sunday as usual. The English-language DNE website changed its domain in an attempt to bypass the blockage, but its new domain was subsequently blocked.
The Business News for Press, Publishing and Distribution Company which owns both El-Borsa and DNE issued a statement on Sunday asserting it sent two memoranda to the Journalists Syndicate and the Higher Council for Media about the blockages that it said came “unjustified and with neither a notification nor explanation.”
“Blocking the two websites is merely the most recent episode in a series of ongoing government violations since last November, and those are more than we can handle. The violations began with seizing the stocks and accounts of the Business News Company which issues both papers, in addition to taking its founder Mostafa Sakr’s assets without interrogation or prior notification. Furthermore, there has recently been a recent an unjustified escalation as security forces stormed our offices claiming to be checking the ownership of computer software while they searched our archive, although it is available online,” reads the statement.
“In response to this vicious and illegal attack , both newspapers are seeking legal paths by issuing a complaint to the committee that took hold of the company assets, which has not responded to our official requests, filed since December, to appoint an acting manager in order to pay locked in salaries,” added the statement.
The two newspapers “do not have any political or partisan or religious affiliations, nor do any of its employees, and have never been at any point a voice for any particular group, with the exception of the liberal editorial policy.”
Access to at least 17 websites, including Mada Masr, was blocked in Egypt in accordance with “relevant legal proceedings,” the country’s official state news agency, MENA, reported on Wednesday night, quoting a high-level security source. Mada Masr has not been officially informed of any party initiating any official or legal proceedings.
Among the websites that have been blocked are two Egyptian outlets, Masr Al-Arabiya and weekly publication Al-Mesryoon’s website. The list also includes some Qatari or Qatar-funded news outlets that support or are managed by the Muslim Brotherhood, principal among them Al Jazeera and Huffington Post Arabic, in addition to the official website for Palestinian political movement Hamas.
The security source also told MENA that the blocked websites were disseminating “content that supports terrorism and extremism and deliberately spreads lies.”
Head of the Journalists Syndicate Abdel Mohsen Salama told media outlets that he is preparing a memorandum to the higher council for media about the blockage of four Egyptian websites, two of which, Al-Maesryoon and El-Borsa issue print papers, and Mada Masr and Masr al-Arabiya.
The Egyptian government has not claimed responsibility for restricting access to the browser Tor, although it comes at the same time as the blocking of the news sites.
Tor allows users improve security and privacy online, and has been used to counter web blockages in other countries. The browser’s website shows an increase in downloads from 1,300 to more than 2,000 in the four days following the blockages
After the Turkish government blocked access to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in November last year, the number of Tor users increased from 18,000 to 25,000 in one day.
While the method used to block Tor remains unclear, a technical analysis of the blockage of the other websites has revealed that an RST injection attack is the cause. Through RST attacks, a third party intercepts transmission of data between two ends of a connection and changes the messages to prevent its the completion of the communication process.
Mada Masr has received several reports of interrupted access to the website through the same service providers at different times from different geographical locations within Egypt. This indicates that the blockage is decentralized through service providers rather than a centralized operation by the state. These providers include Orange, Vodafone and TE Data.
The recent interference intersects with the government’s decision to block The New Arab website last year. An October 2016 report on anomalies in Egypt’s online ecology conducted by 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 — found that the injected RST packet served to obstruct user-server communication with The New Arab website and had the same “static IP identification (IP ID) value of 0x3412 as the injected RST packets” used in an attempt to interfere with Tor in Egypt. This similarity is significant, as The New Arab, which is Qatari funded and sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, is known to be blocked by the Egyptian government, suggesting that a state agency using the same server location conducted the RST injection attacks on Tor.
The same technique was used to disrupt Signal, the messaging and voice calling application supported by Open Whisper Systems’ encryption protocol in December.
This evidence paints an image of the Egyptian government as directly involved in a practice of mass surveillance, as documented in a January report published by Mada Masr.
These events are part of a wider history of the state’s attempt to control the internet, a principal concern since the January 2011 revolution and one that has become apparent following the recent campaign of arrests made recently in connection with the administration of Facebook pages. The government is also currently preparing legislation to combat cyber crime.