The most important event of 2011 was the tide of revolution that swept across the Middle East. While the protests in those countries were stunning in their unity—men and women, old and young, all creeds and political stripes represented—there was one thread that ran throughout, a thread that makes this movement uniquely modern.
In a word: mobilization. Cell phones, Internet and social networking. The elegant and historically apropos “Arab Spring” is also being called the “Twitter Revolution”. The phrase first received widespread use when the popular social networking/messaging service was used to organize protesters in Moldova in 2009.
Twitter also played an important role in organizing political protests in Iran in 2009 and 2010. But it was this year, with the protests beginning in Tunisia, that the awesome power of the world wide web to provide information and communication between activists truly became apparent.
The Internet is a perfect space for political protest to crystallize; it is in a sense the embodiment of freedom of expression. For the relatively low price of a smart phone or computer, anyone can have access to an infinite and ever expanding conversation.
It is difficult and slow for reactionary governments to track down the sources of Internet activism, since there doesn’t need to be a head office or a printing press or even a landline. As a result, governments hoping to quell Internet-driven protests have to result to brute methods like crippling the Internet service in a city or even a whole country.
Bahrain hobbled the Internet in February, as did Egypt and Libya. The Syrian government cut off the internet this June. Belarus blocked Facebook and Twitter in July.
Of course, state surveillance and attempts to control the Internet are as old as the Internet itself. The NGO Reporters Without Borders publishes an annual list of “Internet Enemies” (most recently, Burma, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and China) and “Countries Under Surveillance” (most recently, Belarus, Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Malaysia, Libya, South Korea, Russia, Thailand, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Venezuela, Australia, and France.
Now, most of the countries on that list have a checkered past when it comes to respecting civil liberties, so you might find the last two entries a little surprising. Surely robust democracies don’t need to fear, filter, sensor or control access to the Internet. Why, freedom of expression is one of the foundations of democracy!
Nevertheless, even in countries that pride themselves on their respect for rights and the rule of law, the authorities seem willing to take a page from despots and tyrants.
Discussions about empowering the United States government with an “Internet kill switch” have been ongoing for about a year. Recently, the San Francisco public transit (or BART) shut down mobile phone service to prevent a protest about the killing of a man by transit police.
Following the recent riots in the United Kingdom, the British government is seriously considering a policy of shutting down certain Internet services during any future unrest. Today representatives of major service providers like Blackberry and Facebook have been called to a meeting with the Prime Minister Cameron to discuss the issue.
Now, there’s no sane argument that Obama is as bad as Mubarak or Cameron is as bad as Assad. But there is an equally insane level of hypocrisy inherent in supporting the “pro-democratic” movements of the Arab Spring while copying the tactics being used against the protesters you are praising.
It is a clear cut example of championing free speech, but only in your favour. And the rationalization that the US and UK are only seeking to stop criminal rioters and not political protesters rings hollow, both because calling protesters “criminals” is a tried and true tradition and because even the UK riots, destructive and unacceptable as they were, began with protests into the questionable police shooting of a suspect.
Free speech has to be free, and that includes tweets, status updates, and blogs.