This statement was originally published on afteegypt.org on 19 February 2018.
Report prepared by Mohammad El-Taher
The number of blocked websites in Egypt since May 2017 has reached at least 497. AFTE has issued two reports on blocking: The first was entitled Decision from an Unknown Body: On blocking websites in Egypt and the second Occasionally by Decree.. Update on the Block of Websites in Egypt, and they involved monitoring and analysis of the blocking of websites and censorship of the internet through technical and legal means. Since the second report, covering the period of 7 December 2017 until the end of January 2018, the organization has documented the blocking of 31 new websites - the number of blocked websites, although high, does not constitute a real indication of the Authority's practices to impose control over online news in Egypt as much as the blocked websites indicate the state's tendency to impose internet censorship in general. AFTE publishes this paper to clarify our position regarding the blocking and internet censorship as well as the information gathered thus far.
The novelty of blocking for the Egyptian user
Egypt was not familiar with the practice of blocking websites in the past, and therefore the skill of bypassing censorship was not one of the basic skills acquired by Egyptian users during their normal use of the Internet; in contrast, in some Arab countries which have a history of blocking practices, this has resulted in their citizens acquiring skills of how to deal with internet censorship. With the increase in the number of blocked websites in Egypt, social networks were flooded with advice on how one can bypass a block and links to free services that enable users to access blocked websites such as Tor browser, VPN services, and proxy servers. Some blocked websites began to direct their audience through social networks to rely on proxy servers as a free and easy-to-use way to access the content of blocked websites, while many activists who are interested in countering internet censorship have written about how to rely on Tor browser and VPNs to bypass blocking. On the other hand, blocked websites have tried to find easy mechanisms to reach their audiences, such as relying on alternative platforms to publish their material, or relying on services such as AMP [Accelerated Mobiles Pages], one of the most important services provided by Google on which millions of websites depend.
AMP, a website that affects millions of others
Speedy mobile service is one of the widely used services by popular websites and has been used by many blocked websites as a counter blocking mechanism. Google had announced the AMP service in October 2015, in partnership with the European Digital News Initiative and in collaboration with a group of other publishers and technology companies around the world, including Twitter, WordPress, LinkedIn and Pinterest.
AMP was originally focused on improving the performance of web pages on mobile phones to provide a convenient experience for smartphone users. The project provides an open source tool that enables online publishers to increase the speed of downloading and browsing their websites through smart phones, at a speed that is 10 times faster than the normal one. The tool also provides a visual view of pages compatible with smart phones regardless of the different sizes of screens for mobile phones and tablets. These features can also be used to copy websites intended for traditional computers.
Websites use many techniques to speed up the download of web pages on smart phones in the framework of providing a good service to their audiences, especially as some studies have found that 53% of users do not continue to wait for the download if the load time exceeds more than a few seconds. Therefore, download speed and adapting web pages for smartphones is one of the most important standards that people and publishers are interested in, especially as smartphone searches account for 60% of all searches around the world.
Scope of AMP use
The prevalence of AMP use was so rapid that Adobe announced a 405% increase in service usage during the period from the beginning of the service announcement until December 2016. In February 2017, the percentage of web pages viewed by AMP reached 7% of the total number of pages browsed by users in the United States. In May 2017, Google announced that the number of websites that use AMP had reached 900,000 out of a total of more than 2 billion web pages. And in October 2017 Google announced that the number of websites that rely on this service has reached about 25 million out of a total approaching 4 billion web pages.
Several popular websites with huge and diverse content, technology companies, media and press organizations, and some search engines participate in the development of AMP technology. For example, among the news websites that use AMP are CNN, The New York Times, CNBC, and The Washington Post; there are also search engines, in addition to Google, that use AMP, such as the Bing and Baidu search engines. It is also used and developed by some social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Reddit, content publishing platforms such as Medium, Templer and Drupal, and e-commerce websites such as Ebay and AliExpress.
How websites in Egypt used AMP to confront the blocking
The AMP service displays alternative links to the original links in the search results on Google's search engine, pointing to other links from the Google domain - this means that if a blocked website appears in the Google search results and that website uses AMP, the user will be redirected to an unblocked page. This is the method adopted by some blocked websites in Egypt, where the links produced by AMP were used and disseminated on social networks to reach the public with no need for technical expertise to overcome the blockage.
Read the full report on AFTE's website.