Centuries ago, revolutionaries exchanged secret letters and waited for messages carried on horseback to provide news of how comrades fared on other fronts. Today, the world is captivated by the news, images, and video on global events, which are shared over the Internet by people all over the world instantly.
There is a lively debate as to what role social media plays in disciplining governments and instigating revolutions to overthrow oppressive regimes. Many optimists trust that our interconnectedness in the virtual world can bring about positive change in the real one. Others are more skeptical, pointing out that the Internet also facilitates organizing by the bad guys and enables suppressive regimes to better track and persecute dissidents. Both views are valid.
The Egyptian street protests against the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak have made visible a dissenting movement that was long confined to the virtual world. Bloggers who criticized Mubarak’s policies have often been persecuted and jailed. Kareem Amer, the first blogger in Egypt, arrested explicitly for his writings in 2007, motivated demonstrations all over the world demanding his release, which finally happened late last year.
Despite the harsh censorship undertaken by the Egyptian government, blogs and other social media tools, including Facebook and Twitter, acted as catalysts for the protests going on today.
Governments understand that the Internet gives people tremendous power to share information and organize protest movements. That’s why oppressive governments all over the world are attempting to restrict Internet freedom.
However, Internet users are incredibly resilient against attempts at censorship by governments. Iran memorably set up a special cyber police unit to track and infiltrate online systems. While the Iranian government is working tirelessly to block websites, the Iranian people find innovative ways to circumvent their government’s digital censorship.
Egypt took the extreme route once the protests ensued, deciding to shut down nearly the entire Internet in the country. This was possible because Egypt’s network is fairly centralized with four Internet providers controlling 93% of access. Thus, it was easy for the Mubarak regime to make phone calls to order the shut-down.