by Matthew L. Schafer
It has been five days since massive protests broke out in the streets of Egypt, and despite the Internet crackdown imposed by the government, the voice of the people still flows. The protests are a response to the political, social, and economic woes resulting from the 30 year reign of President Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt’s Internet shutdown on Friday marks one of the most extreme actions taken by any country to control communications during an uprising.
Similar to the Iranian protests of last year, Twitter has become a major vehicle for up to date information on the protests. While Egypt essentially killed the Internet, Twitter and other social media are allowing protestors to communicate with each other and the world.
On Friday, Twitter released a statement on its blog titled, “Let the Tweets Flow.” In the statement, Twitter touched on its responsibility to ensure all legal tweets are conveyed.
“Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users,” Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone and Twitter General Counsel Alex MacGillivray wrote. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”
On Sunday, Egypt shut down the Qatar based news organization Al Jazeera. Nonetheless, as of Sunday at noon, Al Jazeera continued to tweet about developments on the ground and provide a live stream at its website. Last year, Al Jazeera won an Amnesty International Award for its programming.
“Al Jazeera undeterred by Egypt curb: Will continue its comprehensive coverage of landmark events there,” Al Jazeera tweeted on Sunday.
In addition to major news organizations skirting state control, bloggers and citizens are also finding ways around the Internet blockade. The award-winning journalist and blogger Wael Abbas, who runs the website Egyptian Awareness, has been consistently tweeting news from inside Egypt. He has not, however, updated his website since the 26th.
The amount of information that continues to flow out of Egypt is especially impressive, when compared to the Egyptian government’s heavy handed attempts to plug information leaks. Indeed, in addition to the government’s Internet shutdown, there are several documented cases of state violence against journalists.
“It is hard to establish exactly how many journalists have been arrested or physically attacked by police officers in the past 48 hours,” Reporters Without Borders wrote on Friday. “According to the latest information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, more than a dozen journalists have been arrested.”
Egypt also shutdown mobile networks, including Vodafone, one of the world’s largest telecom companies.
“We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers,” Vodafone said in a press release on the Saturday. “It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone, or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.”
In response to Egypt’s Internet crackdown, the hacker group Anonymous, which was reportedly responsible for attacks against websites like MasterCard and PayPal after those sites broke ties with WikiLeaks, said it would attack Egyptian governmental websites for stifling freedom of speech.
“By imposing censorship upon its own people… the Egyptian government has revealed itself to be criminal and made itself an enemy of Anonymous,” the group said in a video posted to YouTube.
On Sunday, China also attempted to prevent the dissemination of information regarding the Egyptian protests. Now, Chinese who search for “Egypt” on micro-blogging websites are met with error messages.
The White House responded to the Internet shutdown on Friday, when Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted, “Very concerned about violence in Egypt – government must respect the rights of the Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet.”
It seems obvious that attempts to squelch free communication are increasingly futile. There are simply too many channels by which people can communicate. Moreover, the rise of bloggers and multi-media journalists has produced a class of savy communicators who find ways around barriers.
Oppressive governments cannot suppress information as easily as they once could. Putting journalists in jail does nothing to stop the spread of information. Blocking the Internet does nothing to stop the flow of information outside countries’ borders.
At some point, governments must realize that they have to break down walls to communication, because those walls are simply a nuisance–not a muzzle–to information producers. If nothing else it’s just bad PR.