Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

E-winds of change

Published on 24 March 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

Photo by Ralaenin, sxc.hu

Try filling an old, worn-out plastic bag with water. Most of the water stays in, but some of it will still seep through the small holes, until nothing is left in the bag any more. That’s exactly what’s happening in countries where governments decide to isolate their countries from the rest of the online world.

Earlier this year, Egypt suddenly went dark as the Internet connection was shut down and mobile services were disrupted. A few weeks later, parts of Algeria suffered restricted access to the Internet, and many Facebook accounts of Algerian protestors were allegedly deleted. A few days later, Libya was reportedly offline for approximately 24 hours, followed by periods of erratic connectivity.

Yet, news about what’s happening on the ground in these countries, and videos documenting it, still seeped out. Landlines and satellite phones, modems and portable radios transmitters continued to work. If the aim is to silence the people, it failed miserably.

Freedom of speech and expression, and the new revolution

It has been over 60 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The origins had been laid in Athens, over 2,500 years ago. In the Middle East, the freedom dates back till at least the time of Caliph Ali (656-661 CE) – if not before – when ‘everyone was free to express his own opinion’, and when the caliph of the time ensured that freedom of speech was not imperilled (Iqbal, J. 1997).

Fast forward to our times. In some corners of the world – including Estonia, France, Finland and Greece – steps have been taken to secure Internet access as a legal right. In other corners, citizens are arbitrarily deprived of Internet access, in a bid to prevent them from using the Internet to snuff out attempts to challenge the leader, and to stop them from organising themselves through social networking sites such as Facebook. For some, restriction from the Internet is seen as an outrageous violation of freedom of speech.

The attempts to silence dissent were largely unsuccessful. During the Egyptian revolt, for example, despite the country being largely offline, social media networks in the rest of the world teamed up to help broadcast the revolution. Journalists were using social media to seep news through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Audioboo and other channels. YouTube’s CitizenTube gathered live footage, and called on viewers to add more links to other videos they come across on YouTube which documented the turmoil.  Google and Twitter launched a service which enabled Egyptians to tweet by phone without requiring an Internet connection, with the help of a speech-to-text recognition service.

During the Ghana Internet Governance Forum a fortnight ago, someone tweeted a quote by one of the speakers: ‘Social networks are an extension of everyday life’. Given the way the networks have been used, especially in time of conflict, I’d say social media networks are more than just an extension. And it is, perhaps, our growing reliance on social media networks as such an important gateway to the world that has made the Internet blackouts grimmer.

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