Unlike when utilities are down, life doesn’t appear to go quiet when the Internet is down. Or cut off.
While on-ramps to social media sites are blocked, as we see in Egypt this week, something else gets to work. Call it the Internet effect. The connected world has learned to find its way around broken nodes, to bypass toll-gates, and evade any form of censorship — soft or otherwise.
This is what happened in Egypt on Thursday.
Foreigns journalists were being attacked and arrested, including two AP journalists and a Guardian reporter who were beaten up. (Listen to the Guardian’s Jack Shenker’s recording of this.) He was released and was able to blog about it:
“Along with nearby protesters I fled back down the street before stopping at what appeared to be a safe distance. A few ordinarily dressed young men were running in my direction, and I assumed they were demonstrators also escaping the oncoming security troops. Two came towards me and suddenly threw out punches, sending me to the ground. I was then hauled back up by the scruff of the neck and dragged towards the advancing police lines… All attempts I made to tell them in Arabic and English that I was an international journalist were met with more punches and slaps;”
Other voices are getting out, too, despite the bans and threats. The next few days will certainly reveal if such attempts can contain the uprising, or backfire.
While Washington wrestles with the right response, other countries (and not just those countries in the region) are obviously watching this live-action drama closely. “Authoritarian governments” observed Clay Shirky, “stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.” But any attempts to promote social media as the tools for regime change are wrong, he warns. This is not what the Twittering masses want to believe.
Promoting access to media and social media as a basic human right is complicated from a foreign policy perspective. Consider what Wikileaks has just done!
But the lesson is clear. The world is quite a different place now, with amplified communication and greater means of collaboration.