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.
Americans—who primarily use the internet to communicate with friends, trade pictures of our latest vacation or a child's birthday, to shop and organize and operate our businesses—generally don't want government meddling in a technology that's increasingly imbedded in our lives.
Yet few appreciate just how high the stakes are.
Many wonder if something similar to the Internet shut-down in Egypt could happen in the US. It seems very unlikely, given the vast complexity and the multitude of Internet providers that manage the US broadband network. However, some have proposed legislation for a virtual Internet “Kill Switch” in the United States, which would give the President the power to declare a “cyber-emergency,” forcing private Internet providers from disconnecting networks “crucial to our nation’s infrastructure.”
The legislative proposal by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), introduced last summer, would even deny to Internet providers the right to fight in court against the regulations, which could include intrusive obligations for mandated updates and compliance. The “Kill Switch” is justified as necessary to contain an act of cyber-warfare, but it's worth pausing to consider how else a government—yes, even the U.S. government—could use such power.
The “Kill Switch” is just one attempt to increase government's control over cyberspace. Another set of intrusive regulations over Internet provider’s network management, called “net neutrality,” was imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December.
The FCC issued these rules in defiance of Congress and the courts. Aside from curbing innovation and introducing a tremendous amount of uncertainty for Internet providers, the biggest danger of the net neutrality rules is that they’re only the first step down a slippery slope in Internet regulation. They set a dangerous precedent for government assertions of nearly boundless authority over the Internet.
Freedom is the foundation of the Internet. Allowing the government to assert uncontested authority over this tremendously important medium of communication puts us at greater risk of abuse from censorship and persecution. America is a long way from Egypt or Iran, but why would we want to head in that direction?