Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Dark Side Side of Internet for Egyptian and Tunisian Protesters

See Evgeny Morozov, at Toronto's Globe and Mail:

As the pundits were busy celebrating the contribution of Twitter and Facebook to protests in Tunisia and Egypt, most of them ignored the terrifying news from Iran, where on Monday two activists were hanged for distributing video footage on the Internet from the country's 2009 “Twitter Revolution.”

The contrast between Tunisia and Iran couldn't be starker: The former has just installed a dissident blogger as a government minister while the latter is still persecuting those who dared to challenge the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 18 months after the elections. Fortunately for Tunisian dissident bloggers, their army refused to shoot the protesters, the country's much-hated ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and the new government has shown no intention of going after the protesters, many of whom are now celebrated as heroes. However, had the events in Tunisia turned otherwise – with Mr. Ben Ali staying in office after a bloody crackdown – it is likely that his secret police would now be acting very much like Iran's, turning to social-networking sites to identify his opponents.

As protests spread in the Arab world, much has been said about the democratizing power of the Internet, however, it is important to note that in the hands of an authoritarian regime it can become a tool of repression. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been used to publicize protests and share videos of police brutality, but they can also be used to track down dissidents after protests subside.

Egypt is one case where it is still hard to predict which side – President Hosni Mubarak's brutal police force or the predominantly peaceful protesters – will prevail in the long term. A 26-page leaflet with protest tips that has been distributed in Cairo explicitly warns its recipients to distribute it with the help of photocopiers and e-mail rather than social media, as the security police could be watching the latter. These concerns became less of an issue on Thursday, as the Mubarak regime pulled the plug on most of the country's communication systems, including the Internet and mobile networks.

That Iranians, Tunisians and Egyptians would be using the Internet to communicate is of little surprise; there is a symbiotic relationship between revolutionary movements and the latest communications technologies. Lenin lauded the power of the telegraph and the postal service while the Iranian Revolution of 1979 owes a great debt to the tape recorder, which allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to record his sermons in Paris and have them smuggled back to the Shah's Iran.

So it is only natural that the new protest movements in the Middle East turn to Facebook and Twitter: These platforms are cheap and provide almost instantaneous visibility to their causes. And those causes do not need to be widely admired in the West. As both Lenin and Khomeini discovered, one doesn't have to be a proponent of liberal democracy to make effective use of new communication tools. Were a revolution to break out in modern Russia, for example, it is likely to be led by anti-Western nationalists, who have made a far more effective use of new media than the Kremlin's liberal opponents.

The lesson for tyrants here is simple: The only way to minimize their exposure to digitally enabled protests is to establish full control over all telecommunications infrastructure in the country.

More at the link.

And check out Morozov's book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.