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White House to Egypt: ‘Turn on Social Networking and Internet’

Updated: Sec. Clinton calls for ”restraint and reform“; CNN, BBC crews attacked by police

Internet and cellphone services have been disrupted — and in some cases shut down altogether — across Egypt, as authorities try to thwart anti-government protesters from organizing, as violent clashes with police continue in the streets of Cairo.

According to the Associated Press, the shut-down was part of the “extreme measures” used by Egyptian authorities to cut off communication between protesters.

The apparent government-led blackout is similar to how authorities responded to the social-media-fueled revolt in Iran in 2009 — the so-called "Twitter Revolution."

And it comes on the heels of the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali late last year, also fueled by social media.

As Arabist.net noted, it appeared as though authorities in Egypt had “shut off the Internet.” Danny O’Brien from the Committee to Protect Journalists (“Watching Egypt disappear from the Internet”) offered a similar take.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs urged the Egyptian government to stop blocking access to the internet.

“We are deeply concerned with the images and events we are seeing in Egypt today,” Gibbs said in an emergency briefing. "We're monitoring a very fluid situation."

Earlier, Gibbs urged the Egyptian government to "respect the rights of the Egyptian people [and] turn on social networking and internet."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “restraint and reform" from the Egyptian government.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak addressed the country after 12:00 a.m. local time, calling for "calm" as protesters demanded an end to his 30-year-rule.

The chaos — and apparent government attempts to control media access — is also making coverage of the situation there difficult, to say the least.

“Will be extremely difficult to relay news from the field,” CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman tweeted. “No freedom of press to cover. NO freedom of expression and assembly.” Wedeman added: “Plainclothed #Egypt policemen in Tahrir Sq attack #CNN crew, brake and steal camera. Violent suppression of protesters everywhere.” A reporter for the BBC was reportedly "brutally" beaten by police.

As a result, uncensored footage of the unrest was hard to come by.

CNN.com carried a live feed of state-run Nile TV, reported police were dealing with protesters in a “very civilized way,” the demonstrations were “peaceful” and that the situation was largely “calm.” (Note: those were quotes from a CNN translator, who was translating over the live feed.) A single live webcam, streamed on CNN.com, showed a less peaceful demonstration.

Al Jazeera — whose role in inciting or at least galvanizing protests in the Middle East has been questioned — is providing by far the most comprehensive televised coverage of the Egypt protests. (Click here to watch live.) As a reporter on Al Jazeera English noted, the state-run network is "opting to show Egyptians citizens a very different Cairo than what we are seeing."

Also Friday, there were several reports that Syria had shut down Internet services, too, stemming from Tunisian unrest earlier in the week. Syrian authorities had already banned Facebook Chat from cellphones, according to Reuters.

Twitter users with Internet service have been able to follow the events using the #jan25 hashtag — a reference to the "Day of Rage" protesters had planned there.