With events moving at a dizzying pace across the Arab speaking world, it is still much too early to know what lasting impact the freedom movements in countries like Tunisia and Egypt will have. The Obama administration in the US, and leaders throughout the Western world, seem somewhat in a quandary as to how to respond to the rapidly growing calls for the ouster of long-time leaders. What form of government will take their place remains a guessing game, but one thing is becoming crystal clear – the Internet has become a game changer for all revolutions and people’s movements to come.
As hundreds of thousands marched on Cairo, the government moved quickly to shut down Internet access. Having seen what average people with the power of Twitter in their hands had accomplished in Tunisia, President Mubarak desperately tried to head Egyptians’ access to communications off at the pass. But with no Internet within the country, it didn’t take some enterprising souls long to figure out how to do an end-run around the prohibition and harness the power of a free Internet in countries beyond their government’s grasp. Because a fair amount of cellphone service is still in operation, Egyptians began using a new social-media link that weds Twitter, Google, and a voice-based social media platform called SayNow. Egyptians can call one of three phone numbers, leave a message, and then those voice messages are automatically recorded as Twitter messages.
When I read of this, I decided to visit Twitter’s site at twitter.com/speak2tweet to see what was up. Many of the messages are in Arabic, but there are also a number left in English. I know little about the internal struggles of Egyptians politics, but I have now heard the voices of those seeking political freedom in person. Perhaps Muslims’ idea of freedom is different than for those of us in the West. Perhaps what is happening will end up causing far more headaches for world stability than we care to think about. But for now, there is something to be learned from inventive people finding ways to get their message out to the world.
Despots and dictators have always looked for ways to control the general populace’s access to information. For centuries the Church States of Europe controlled the people through ignorance, oppression, and poverty. Bibles were chained to pulpits and popes used the power of their office to suppress knowledge among the common people. We all have read how Martin Luther posted his 95 Thesis and gave entrance to the Reformation. But Luther’s partner in that revolution was not a person but rather a machine. A little over 50 years earlier, Guttenberg invented movable type and the printing press was born. For another hundred years, one government after another did everything it could to suppress the spread of Bibles in the language of the people and tracts by men like Luther, but the die was cast. The printing press had changed everything. Books were no longer for the favored few but rather for the masses.
Again, this is not to speak in favor of or against events in Egypt. It’s just too early to know what they will finally mean. At the same time, a few things are certain. It is becoming increasingly difficult to control information. North Korea has accomplished it by keeping its people in the dark, literally. The media in the United States works at offering one-sided accounts of events, but information still flows. Perhaps we should compare what is happening in Egypt with what Senator Lieberman and the Whitehouse are seeking to do in creating a so-called “Internet Kill Switch.” Under the guise of homeland security, they are seeking congressional approval to be able to do what Mubarak’s regime did in Egypt. Of course, they say, such a thing would only be used in the event of a terrorist attack. But what if it was determined a rally by the Tea Party threatened national security? What criteria will be used to determine when the Internet would be activated again if shut down? Whether it’s Paul Revere’s famous ride or Twitter, people will always seek ways to freely relay information, and too often, governments will work to suppress it.