(Written for the Sunday Guardian)
Last week, the Egyptian government blocked social networking sites in the country to control the civil revolution brewing in the streets. Massive protests had been arranged via SMS chains and social networking sites, and this shutdown was a direct attempt to quash them. Very unsurprisingly, some enterprising young people managed to bypass the blocks. Proxy servers helped users hide their locations and access certain social networking sites, while third party apps, like Blackberry for Twitter and UberTwitter, were found to work since they did not access the sites directly. Some people accessed the Internet using private networks, outside of the state's purview. As a result, the rest of the world was able to see videos of the protestors being hit by teargas and read updates online, despite the blockage. That's when the government decided to go for a total Internet blackout.
The reach of the Internet and new media is best understood by its two biggest stereotypes today: the yuppie on Facebook and the fisherman with a cellphone. And while businesses and civil society have been preoccupied with strategies to expand the reach of the Internet to all citizens, there is a parallel attempt to control it by the governments of the day. The reasons cited are overwhelmingly related to cyber security; but this power over channels of communication can certainly be used to control the aspirations of a defiant public, as we have seen from time to time.
The thought of a complete 'black hole', as some people are calling Egypt's Internet blackout, is frightening in today's context. The possibility of the same occurring in other countries is directly proportionate to the control that a State has over the ISPs (Internet Service Providers). According to reports, private ISPs in Egypt shut down their services within three minutes of each other, indicating a directive from higher up. This level of control has never been witnessed, even in China, where access to certain content is permanently restricted. In Pakistan, websites with 'blasphemous' content have been banned at various periods, including blogs and other media that challenged President Musharraf's electoral win in 2008 by alleging vote rigging. Similarly, in 2009, Iran blocked Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to minimize a growing urban protest against President Ahmedinejad's "landslide" election. But these are all examples of certain websites being blocked, nowhere near the Egyptian government's total shutdown of the Internet.
Could this happen to us?, is the question being asked in forums across the globe. Most US commentators believe that a systematic shutdown would not be possible in their country because there are too many operators, many of which are far too independent to adhere to a government directive. But the events of the last week have brought on fears of a cyber security bill in the senate -- 'Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset' -- which would allow the President to 'switch off' the Internet in the name of national security. A law that might be passed in the name of economic security might well be used in the name of curtailing civil unrest.
Back home in India, 'removing objectionable content' is pretty standard fare, with even Google complying with these requests from the government. During the Kargil War of 1999, access to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, was blocked online, and more recently, in 2006, when the government asked for certain websites to be blocked, the ISPs obliged. And in 2009, many Indian men discovered to their horror that the government had blocked the comic-porn site, Savita Bhabhi. As for social networking sites, Orkut has also agreed to remove 'defamatory content'. But India has never been tested on the scale that Egypt has. One mustn't forget that the government of Jammu and Kashmir banned text messages in the summer of 2010 to restrict rallies and protest marches by the youth. Whatever the official explanations were, denying access to communication only served to further alienate people and resentment against the establishment.
Judging by experiences across the digital world, the move by the Egyptian government to deny the entire country access to the Internet becomes a gross violation of human rights, especially at a time when countries like France and Norway have accepted the Internet as a fundamental right. Today, ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) is becoming an increasingly common phrase, and an accepted medium of delivering on the promise of development, modernisation and open communication. Incidents such as Egypt's only serve to remind us that these ideas rest on shaky ground. And in this case, we've just been reminded, yet again, that Marshall McLuhan was right in 1964 when he said, the medium IS the message.