I am sure readers will be aware of the long-running global discussion about the role social media can play in revolutions. Clearly, Facebook and Twitter can catalyse opposition to authoritarian regimes, and spread news of protests and government oppression between citizens, and to the world at large.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s heavy handed response to online opposition may actually have quickened his fall. He and his cronies felt they had no option but to ‘switch off’ the Internet, depriving the entire country of proper connectivity. This was an obvious ploy which only signalled the regime’s desperation. The protesters in Tahrir Square were emboldened.
In the future, however, oppressive governments may become more subtle and savvy in their approach to censorship. In Episodes #81 and #82 of the Rebooting the News podcast, Dave Winer and Jay Rosen discuss this problem at length. Winer explained out that Twitter and Facebook could be nixed by regimes. An Internet ‘kill switch’ is bad for governments, because it signals to the people that the protests are working. Instead, oppressive governments will try to develop tools which simply filter out content which undermines their agenda, yet maintains the appearance of normalcy. The Chinese regime does this very well, and managed to selectively filter out references to Egypt for Internet users inside China. Having witnessed the sobering examples of Mubarak and Ben Ali, other dictators will begin to commission tools to achieve this. Corporations (which, we must remind ourselves, include Twitter and Facebook) will be happy to do this, in exchange for access to the emerging markets these countries represent.
Winer expands on this idea on his blog, Scripting.com:
They can do the same with Facebook that they do with Assange. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff you can do at a firewall to make one site appear to be having technical problems. Real technical problems (but fake ones nonetheless). There are consultants calling on generals all over the world, right now, selling them wonderful Internet dashboards that selectively and randomly make sites appear to have problems of their own, not caused by the government.
Anticipating this, we have to create communication networks on the Internet that require that the whole Internet be cut off in order for them to be cut off. The reason is simple. The people who are being manipulated will know they’re being manipulated. In a centralized social space, there could easily be doubt. I know this is a complicated idea, but the intellects are at work, I promise you. They are smart, we have to be smart too.
It’s important that people learn to manage their own infrastructure. It’s going to happen, we can do it. We can make servers much easier to set up and maintain, and do more stuff that’s meaningful to people like the people in Egypt fighting for freedom. By spreading out we’re harder to stop.
This strikes me as being one of the most important ideas for freedom of expression right now, and a crucial lesson from the Egyptian uprising.