During the recent uprising that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt completely shut down the Internet within its borders — an unprecedented move by any country, and a worrisome one. The Egyptian government owns the country's largest Internet provider and easily shut down other providers within hours. Engineers from Google and Twitter, alarmed at the development, quickly formed a workaround called "speak2Tweet" aimed at keeping the Egyptian protesters in touch with the rest of the world. They set up an international phone number where Egyptians with any sort of phone connection could leave voicemails that would automatically be transcribed and sent out over Twitter.
Egyptian writer Parvez Sharma noted that poverty is high in Egypt, and the number of people with smartphones is much smaller than in America, saying the Facebook/Twitter influence during the country's uprising was just one component of a popular revolution. In early February, social media research firm Sysomos analyzed the number of Twitter users who identified their location as Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, and found it to be less than 15,000. Nevertheless, it was enough of a factor that a panel was hastily convened on the last day of New York's Social Media Week on Feb. 11, where Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a producer for the Al-Jazeera English news network, told the room, "Social media didn't cause this revolution. It amplified it. It accelerated it."
That's good enough. While the ouster of Mubarak was years in the making, its actual execution took only 18 days once the protests began. There was violence, to be sure, but nowhere near the kind of massive bloodshed (or genocide) that often accompanies revolutions. A good argument can be made that the protesters' links to the outside world helped galvanize world opinion — quickly — against Mubarak. The New York Times reported last week that the young Egyptians who spearheaded the revolution "brainstormed on the use of technology" with their counterparts in Tunisia, which earlier saw a successful uprising led by young people. "Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley," the Times wrote.
Repressive governments naturally fear social networking. China blocks both Facebook and Twitter — and censored as much of the news coming out of Egypt as it could. (Chinese people entering the word "Egypt" on their search engines during the time got an error message from the government.) During the contentious Iranian elections of 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the media, "I wouldn't know a Twitter from a Tweeter," but someone must have brought her up to speed since then. On Feb. 15, during a speech on Internet freedom at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Clinton said protecting freedom of the Internet around the world remains "one of the grand challenges of our time." She also promised to invest $25 million of government money to help freedom fighters around the world battle "thugs, hackers and censors."
In that effort, Clinton could start at home. Legislation titled "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset," championed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is couched as an attempt to protect American Internet infrastructure in the event of a terrorist attack — but computer security experts say it could be used the same way Mubarak shut down Egyptian Internet providers. Supporters claim the bill is necessary in an age of cyber attacks. As written, however, the proposed law would only kick in if a cyber attack causes more than $25 billion in damages. Critics point out, rightly, that the legislation would effectively close the barn door after the horse has gotten out.
In our view, no president — Democrat or Republican — should have the fearsome authority to shut down Americans' Internet access. Doing so would be akin to shutting down newspapers and television news stations.
The U.S. government is learning the value of social networking. This month, the State Department set up two special Twitter accounts, @USAdarFarsi and @USAbilAraby, to broadcast news in Farsi to anti-government protesters in Iran — a 21st-century Voice of America. That's a noble effort, but the fight for freedom continues on the home front as well.