Social media sense: Egypt's ban did nothing

Ronny Kerr · February 3, 2011 · Short URL:

Internet access returns to Egyptians a week later; the media will flow, the sea of knowledge grows

[Update on Feb. 3 at 11:16 AM PST: I spoke too soon. The Internet shutdown did do something: it cost Egypt's economy as much as $90 million, or $18 million per day. And the damage isn't done yet.]

Early Wednesday morning, nearly a week after Egypt disappeared from the Internet, online traffic from the country appeared to be returning to normal levels.

Along with Arbor Networks, the network security company responsible for the graph above, Internet intelligence service Renesys and HerdictWeb confirm reports that Web activity is flowing again from the protest-ridden country. (Though a less definitive test, Egyptian-based websites are loading normally now, a good sign that Internet access has been restored.)
While the Egyptian Internet blackout proved a widely popular story last week, when the protests were first kindled, reports of the Internet’s restoration this week have been mostly overshadowed by reports from what’s happening on the ground, and rightly so. Over the weekend, more than 300 people may have been killed throughout the country in scuffles with a government-deployed task force shooting tear gas and bullets. And on Wednesday, violence continued to escalate in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, as pro-government protesters armed with rocks and molotov cocktails clashed against anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square. Three people died and 639 people were injured on that day alone, according to the Health Ministry.

Demonstrations in the Square had grown exponentially each passing day, from 50,000 people on January 30th to 250,000 on January 31st to over a million on February 1st, according to Al Jazeera.
It seems a little strange that the protests actually grew in strength--reflecting greater efficiency in organization--in spite of a nationwide blackout of Web and mobile services. Weren’t Twitter and Facebook supposed to be instrumental in keeping protesters united? Well, yes and no.
“The role of the Internet was critical at the beginning,” computer security specialist Ahmed Gharbeia told Wired. “On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter. Everyone knew were everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police. It was real time navigation through the city, and that’s why it was shut down.”
Likely crushing the hopes of President Hosni Mubarak and his administration, a total ISP shutdown did little to stave protests. In fact, it may have intensified them.
“Blocking the Internet was one of the biggest mistakes [the government] has made, plus cutting off mobile phones,” said a former official in the Ministry of Communications. “That made the people very angry and more aggressive.”
It’s times like these that I think of all the naysayers who see Twitter as just a big noise generator and how their kind so often quip, “Who cares what you had for breakfast? I certainly don’t.” Twitter, Facebook and the Web in general represent much more than that. I don’t want to argue that the Internet is the savior of humanity or that a San Francisco-based microblogging website will wipe dictatorships from the global map; we saw in Iran in 2009 that the actual Twitter effect may have been exaggerated by overly excited media sources.
However, when we're talking about human rights, none of that really matters. It doesn't matter whether or not the revolution will be tweeted. It doesn't matter if anyone cares what I tweet for breakfast this morning. For all we know, Twitter may not exist in two or ten or twenty years. But right now it exists and right now it is a still-growing popular form of communication, which means it is an extension of ourselves by which we exercise our freedom speech. If the medium is the message, then, for the first time in history, the message is that every human has a voice and has a right to use it. Egypt’s decision to ban Twitter along with Facebook, and later the whole Web, was a slap in the face of thousands of protesters demanding basic human rights like free elections and free speech.

Mubarak's speech, in which the president claimed he would step down in September after new elections, must ultimately mean nothing to many protesters because it arrives in the middle of an Internet ban. The man claims to be giving into the people's demand... while withholding their right to free speech?
The beauty of the Internet is that it is the world’s greatest repository of human knowledge, and it is not going anywhere anytime soon, no matter the actions of one country. Shutting down access for a week is almost insulting; while it may have hindered the flow of real-time media to the world, eventually that media will become readily available for all eyes to see--from Egyptians young to Egyptians old, from Americans to Tunisians.
Even in China, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are already so dead that the government there wouldn’t even allow people to search for the keyword “Egypt,” there are ways around such restrictions.
And it’s the younger people, those most eager to demand change from the status quo, who are proving they care enough to bypass such restrictions. Isn’t that how all these revolutions in the Middle East got started in the first place? Fattened by an infinitely rich information network their parents never could’ve dreamed of but as equally politically and economically famished as generations previous, the younger generation of today is rising up.

Here's to hoping that violence tapers off in Egypt and, no matter how this all turns out, may no one forget (thanks to the Internet, we'll never forget) the boldness of the thousands of Egyptians who love freedom as much as they love their country.

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