Over the last week, I’ve been glued to my Twitter feed (hashtags #jan25, #egypt, and @ioerror, @jilliancyork and @EthanZ are good aggregators) and Al Jazeera English to follow events in Egypt. I can only watch and tweet my support (and work with groups like Tor Project whose technology and training helps dissidents stay safer when they have Net access) as people mass in Tahrir Square for a million+ person march.
I recognize the location of some of Al Jazeera footage from a visit to Cairo. Poignantly, that was in November 2008, in the final days of the U.S. presidential election, when I used the Internet to make skype-based get-out-the-vote calls. Since Mubarak has been in power for 30 years, the Egyptians who cheered Obama’s victory around me had never had the opportunity to vote in meaningful free elections.
As Egypt’s January 25 protests continued, the Egyptian government cut off Internet access (see reports from The Tor Project, Renesys, and RIPE) and mobile SMS from most of the country’s providers. Yesterday, Noor.net, the final provider that had continued to offer Internet connectivity, also became unreachable. Even phone service is uncertain. Andrew McLaughlin eloquently called upon Communications Minister Tarek Kamel to restore communications.
That cut-off in itself demonstrates some of the value of Internet communications: the unpopular government fears the organizing resources the Net provides for citizens, and the window it gives to the world watching and trying to help. While it’s far too early to measure the Net’s impact on revolutionary movements in Egypt, and Tunisia only weeks earlier, we can find potential impacts. Were Egyptians inspired by news from Tunisia’s uprising, some of it reaching them faster online? Did they use social media to organize, along with off-line means? Did social media help to amplify off-line protests, showing solidarity among friends and people they respected, encouraging more to take to the streets? It’s clear that we in the United States have had access to much more information, through the Net, even cut off as it has been, than we’d get quickly from a pre-Internet revolution.
We also see that the Internet is not any particular means of data transport. The independence of layers means that applications don’t care what the route underneath looks like, so long as there is one. That meant that even cutting off Internet service providers couldn’t stop information flows: while Egyptians could call out from the country, they could tell their stories at @jan25voices, and through the Google-Twitter-Phone service, @speak2tweet, that automates some of the voice-Twitter connection. Other providers outside Egypt have offered dial-up lines.
Moreover, the situation illustrates the value of open Internet here at home. Al Jazeera English, the television broadcaster giving the most thorough coverage of the Egyptian events — despite having its Cairo bureau closed and six of its journalists jailed — is not available through most US cable providers. Ryan Grim on Huffington Post calls this a “blackout”, but thanks to the Internet, that need not be a barrier. I’m watching Al Jazeera English on my computer, through pipes that can carry video, audio, and text of my choice. (So it’s disturbing to see Chris Sacca tweet that he “worked at an Akamai competitor when Al-Jazeera sought CDN [content delivery network: local caching that can help improve network delliery] help in 2002. US Gov made clear to us that we would suffer.” Cable’s limited-purpose pipe, where subscribers get only bundles chosen from among the channels their providers offer, seems an anachronism in the Internet age. We may still want to watch video (and not only create it ourselves), but we need Net neutrality’s assurance that we can get it from any source: peer, professional, or dissident.
I’ll continue to watch the tweets and video online, hoping that in the near future, I’ll be able to celebrate with the Egyptian people as they vote in free and democratic elections.