Like many of you, I was quite riveted by the news from Egypt over the past month.
A dictator falls – certainly much to “Like” in that – and Facebook was given much of the credit. Revolution as a social networking project.
The reality seems to be a bit more complicated, and even more interesting than the first headlines.
Much credit for the success of the uprising is given to Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive, who provided much of the organization behind the uprising. Given Google’s hyper-aggressive ambitions, perhaps this could be a new business line for them. I can just see the division’s logo now:
Mr. Ghonim set up a Facebook page and named it “We Are All Khaled Said,” after a man who had been brutally killed by the police. Photos of Said’s corpse went viral among young people in Egypt, and the Facebook page built a huge fan base. Athough Ghonim set up the page anonymously (which actually violates Facebook’s policy), he was eventually found and arrested. He spent two weeks being interrogated, all the while shackled and blindfolded, but was eventually released.
(Ghonim seems to be a truly remarkable man. When they removed his blindfold and shackles, he shook hands with his interrogators, knowing that it was the regime, not the individuals, who were responsible for his treatment.)
By that time, the public demonstrations had started, organized initially on Facebook and Twitter. The Egyptian government responded by shutting down the Internet in Egypt.
Apparently, they were able to do so by simply cutting the fiber optic cables to the outside world. There is something called a “DNS Server,” which is needed to translate the names of websites (URLs) into the actual address (those funny numbers called an IP address).
Since the DNS servers happen to be outside of Egypt and the government controlled the international cables, it only took a few switches to make the entire country go dark, digitally.
The kept the Internet down for five days, and it is unclear why the government allowed it up again. Perhaps they just blinked because of the reaction to the naked oppression. But perhaps they found that a country simply cannot function without the Internet.
In trying to control access to Facebook by the revolutionaries, they also cut off email. How do you run a business these days without email? For that matter, how do you run a government?
We may never know exactly why the government restored the Internet, but I would venture to say that it will be increasingly difficult for totalitarian governments to cut their countries off from the Internet.
And that is surely a good thing. People want to be free and so does information. (The slogan “Information wants to be free” is attributed to Stewart Brand, in a 1985 conversation with Steve Wozniak.)
An interesting question, however, is to what extent anonymity is needed or used in the spread of information. Eben Moglen, who runs the Software Freedom Law Center, points out, “Everything we know about technology tells us that the current forms of social network communication, despite their enormous current value for politics, are also intensely dangerous to use.”
Facebook’s policy requiring actual identities was established to cut down various forms of fraud and abuse, but what about political dissent?
Senator Dick Durbin wrote to Facebook, saying, “I am concerned that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect human rights and avoid being exploited by repressive governments” and asking them to allow democracy and human rights advocates to use Facebook with pseudonyms.
And the State Department has announced a new program to provide information and tools to help dissidents maintain their anonymity in oppressive regimes, saying that Internet freedom is “an inalienable right.”
Simultaneously, however, the United States government issued a subpoena to Twitter, asking for information related to the WikiLeaks investigation. They have a list of individuals suspected to be involved, and want Twitter to reveal the IP address (i.e., location) used, when the Tweets were sent, and the list of recipients (i.e., whom they were communicating with).
Interestingly, they have not asked for the content of the communication, only to whom and from where.
I must also acknowledge that most hypocritical of all governments, Iran. Only days after praising the success of the revolution in Egypt, they cut off cell phone service around public squares and severely restricted Internet traffic to prevent the “monarchists, ruffians, and seditionists” from demonstrating.
As Kurt Vonnegut reiterated in Slaughterhouse Five, “So it goes.”