wikileaks, the internet, egypt: at the edges and intersections

I first want to touch on the importance of communication. Believe me, as a deaf person I am acutely aware of the central place communication has in all of humanity. We are driven to communicate, we must communicate, and we are at our best the more fluently we communicate. The Internet is but the latest in thousands of years of communication tools. We’ve come full circle from clay tablets to electronic ones. Saying that something is a “Twitter Revolution” is silly –were WWI and WWII “Radio and Telephone Wars”? Of course not. And yet those new technologies along with others forever changed the face of conflict. If we didn’t have Twitter in this computer age, we’d have something else performing the same function, because this follows our being human, with very human needs for communication.

There’s a lot of commentary (both online and in more conventional media) about “social media” (really, online communication with applications specifically meant to facilitate various types of communication) “fueling” social change (ie, revolutions, government transparency and so on). Certainly these tools are far more powerful than their predecessors. Telephones extended the range of communication but were largely meant for one on one. Radio and TV could reach thousands, hundreds of thousands at a time, but without any feedback. The Internet, by contrast allows everyone to communicate with everyone, at whichever scale (one to one, one to many, and most importantly, many to many) you might want or need. However, none of this would achieve a single thing without people. Besides, degrade one means of communication and people immediately turn to (yes, less efficient and/or more expensive) alternatives. Witness the protesters in Tahrir going from Facebook to cellphones, and later on working on a mesh networks, to bypass state-controlled network companies. Moreover, the Internet doesn’t just expand your contacts and your audience, allowing you to communicate directly with others without any intermediary to suppress or alter your message. Information is the currency of communication — and the Internet is primarily about moving information. Not only that, but it can do so anonymously. These three aspects: range, information, and safety are all the logical outcome of constantly pushing on improving the ability to communicate. At any given point in human history, the most powerful groups are the ones with the most access to those three criteria.

Without protesters, “social media” is nothing. Without people, increased communication and information is nothing. Social media isn’t fueling a damn thing. What social media is, is the latest manifestation of humanity’s will to communicate. It is the result of our current level of technology coupled with our current needs for large scale communication. It is not some external force affecting human discourse; it is the (again) result of human discourse. Wikileaks is also absolutely the logical outcome of the extent and range of communication we now possess. But neither is it “fueling” revolutions. It is providing us with information, for example, about new Eyptian VP Omar Suleiman, but to think that the Egyptian people weren’t already aware of that is just to be ignorant — or delusional.

I think most of the analyses I see out there really lack a good understanding of the limits and origins of social applications. (Not that I claim a completely understanding myself!) Some do get it (or agree with me, or I with them — it’s all relative 🙂 ): Social Media as a Tool for Protest

The role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organize and execute. An underlying assumption is that social media is making it more difficult to sustain an authoritarian regime — even for hardened autocracies like Iran and Myanmar — which could usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe. In a Jan. 27 YouTube interview, U.S. President Barack Obama went as far as to compare social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.

Social media alone, however, do not instigate revolutions. They are no more responsible for the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt than cassette-tape recordings of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini speeches were responsible for the 1979 revolution in Iran. Social media are tools that allow revolutionary groups to lower the costs of participation, organization, recruitment and training. But like any tool, social media have inherent weaknesses and strengths, and their effectiveness depends on how effectively leaders use them and how accessible they are to people who know how to use them.

Precisely.

This illustrates that the primary issue is, and always has been communication — when one means became unavailable, protesters instantly improvised: Cairo’s Band of Geeks Survives Tahrir Square Assault

“The role of the Internet was critical at the beginning,” Gharbeia says. “On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter. Everyone knew were everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police. It was real time navigation through the city, and that’s why it was shut down.”

While the Internet was cut, however, the groups made do by watching Al Jazeera. The protesters projected videos from the Qatar-based news channel last night – and passed along any news via landline or cell phone (when they were working).

[…] “Blocking the Internet was one of the biggest mistakes [the government] has made, plus cutting off mobile phones,” said a former official in the ministry of communications who now works for a large computer company. “That made the people very angry and more aggressive.”

Twitter, and then TV broadcast and cellphones allowed people to communicate and coordinate a far larger pattern of movement.

And this: Incredible: Watch volunteers translate Egyptian phone messages into tweets. You have literally a global network of people working to transcribe short telephone calls and then translate them into at least three more languages. What facilitates this? Again, the Internet which allows us to communicate instantly like this. It’s the modern day equivalent of the bucket brigade, taking similar advantage of crowd efficiency (or the more geeky “crowdsourcing”).

Examples are legion.

Hackers’ Egypt Rescue: Get Protesters Back Online
Meet the Man Tweeting Egypt’s Voices to the World
Google and Twitter launch service enabling Egyptians to tweet by phone
101 protesting
Tahrir Square Behind the Barricades

I’d quote from all these, but this post is long enough as it is 🙁

I found this one particularly interesting: Inside the anti-kettling HQ. Last Saturday, a group of anti-cut protesters in London, their protests done, joined up with those protesting at the Egyptian Embassy. But the entire crowd dispersed before the police could move in to “kettle” them:

At each of the previous four major student protests in London since the Millbank riot on 10 November, police have kettled – or, in their terminology, “contained” – thousands of protesters, preventing them from leaving an area for several hours, and often from accessing basic amenities such as food, water and toilets.

Police kettle protesters supposedly to quell violence, but protesters arguably only turn to violence out of frustration at being kettled. Most notoriously, police trapped hundreds of teenage schoolchildren inside a tight grid on Whitehall on 24 November – and only subsequently did a few of them smash up a police van abandoned in their midst.

Saturday’s non-kettle, then, was a victory in itself. But the real excitement wasn’t that it didn’t happen – but how it didn’t happen. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why police and protesters behave in a certain way at a certain time, but one explanation for the kettle’s failure to form lies with a new communications network, which launched that afternoon: Sukey.

The brainchild of a group of young, recently politicised computer programmers, Sukey’s main goal is to stop people getting kettled. On the day of a protest, founders collate information from individual protesters – tweets, texts and GPS positions – about what is happening on the ground. The Sukey team then update an online live-map of the protest, accessible from smartphones. Simultaneously, they tweet and text brief summaries of events to all their subscribers, telling them where other protesters are situated, and – most significantly – where kettles are forming. As the nursery rhyme (from which Sukey takes its name) aptly suggests: “Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again.”

Again — the Internet facilitates communication to coordinate mass movement and reaction.

This shorter, more charming story also illustrates the powerful boost the Internet gives to communication: Why Social Media Is Bringing Back Our Grandparents’ Values

On January 4 at 9:46 p.m., I posted this message to Facebook:

“Vegas tomorrow. Who’s in?”

I was preparing for my drive/pilgrimage to Las Vegas for CES. And, as one does, I alerted 500 of my closest Facebook friends of this fact. I didn’t even think much of it.

The next morning, before I settled into the long drive, I stopped in to my local coffee shop. Ashley, who works there and knows my kids’ names, asked, “Your usual?” And then added, “Heading off to Vegas, huh?” She’d seen my status update.

Some may find this intimacy alarming. I found it oddly comforting. I bet this is what it was like for my grandparents, in a time when communities were close-knit; when someone knew if you were going on a trip or noticed if you didn’t show up somewhere.

Of course this sort of mass communication / mass awareness could be a good thing or a bad thing — the Internet itself is neither — it’s strictly in how its perceived and used. This kind of thing could be seen or used as a means of extensive transparency, or as a means to track down and harass someone. After all, Wikileaks ISP Anonymizes All Customer Traffic To Beat Spying

I think these examples help make it clear why some have started considering access to the Internet a human right of sorts. The ability to communicate with others is a fundamental right — witness the furor over the terms of Bradley Manning’s incarceration which severely limit any sort of communication with anyone.

Governments are quite aware of the power of instant and anonymous communication, of course, and seek to control it. I hardly even need mention the U.S.’s government’s ongoing work to try and somehow indict Wikileaks and/or Assange via Manning, or the various other attempts to shut Wikileaks down. As a purveyor of anonymous information that can be globally distributed, it is a perfect end result to having optimized range, information, and anonymity. Many more examples:

Leading Egyptian Facebook Activist Arrested, Friends Say

An Egyptian Facebook activist and leader of the group known as the April 6 Youth has been arrested in Cairo, friends told Wired.com Wednesday in e-mails. But those accounts were contradicted by the activist himself.

This actually illustrates the speed of information (including inaccurate) on the Internet; but the same speed (and direct contact) also means swift self correction.

Let’s look at @sandmonkey (I am glad to report that after having been arrested and detained and beaten, he is alive, has been released, and is recuperating). Note the commentary at the top of the post:
And this: Egypt, right now! (by @sandmonkey)

This one was originally posted on www.sandmonkey.org. The account got suspended, but the message shouldn’t disappear.

To be clear: this one was originally written by @sandmonkey – I just copy/pasted.

Egypt, right now!

I don’t know how to start writing this. I have been battling fatigue for not sleeping properly for the past 10 days, moving from one’s friend house to another friend’s house, almost never spending a night in my home, facing a very well funded and well organized ruthless regime that views me as nothing but an annoying bug that its time to squash will come. The situation here is bleak to say the least.

It didn’t start out that way. On Tuesday Jan 25 it all started peacefully, and against all odds, we succeeded to gather hundreds of thousands and get them into Tahrir Square, despite being attacked by Anti-Riot Police who are using sticks, tear gas and rubber bullets against us. We managed to break all of their barricades and situated ourselves in Tahrir. The government responded by shutting down all cell communication in Tahrir square, a move which purpose was understood later when after midnight they went in with all of their might and attacked the protesters and evacuated the Square. The next day we were back at it again, and the day after. Then came Friday and we braved their communication blackout, their thugs, their tear gas and their bullets and we retook the square. We have been fighting to keep it ever since.

Go and and read the whole thing — it’s just amazing to see the difference between what the talking heads are saying, what the Mubarak regime is broadcasting, and the direct testimony of someone involved in the protests themselves. Also see his latest tweet: Please don’t respond to my phone or BBM. This isn’t me. My phone was confiscated by a thug of an officer who insults those who call. Note how his instruments of communication were targeted. (We also see this at work in U.S. airports.)

Egypt took the unusual step of being the first country to actually shut down its entire Internet network in response to the protests, as documented in many places: Egypt Returns to the Internet; Overview of routing activity in Egypt for the past 24 hours (UTC); The future of Egypt’s internet; and Egypt’s Net on Life Support.

Think it’s just those wild and unruly countries who try to control the Internet in such a ham-handed fashion? Guess again: Killing the Internet Not Just a Problem in Egypt

It’s very much an American concern, in that a US-based company seems to be the maker of the Internet off-switch. As Tim Karr of Free Press notes, the US company Narus was founded in 1997 by Israeli security experts. Based in Sunnyvale California, Narus has devised what business fans call a “social media sleuth.”

[…Note] that Narus is owned by Boeing, the nominally US-based company that has outsourced jobs all over the world—we know that the US State Department has been lobbying for them. Got to boost those exports!

So while Obama administration reps call for Internet freedom to be restored in Egypt, they may simultaneously be lobbying for the companies who shut down that freedom. Your tax dollars at work promoting the sale of social media off-switches to dictators, that would be bad enough.

But do we have any reason to believe the United States has not also bought this handy tool for itself?

After all, our senators are on top of this: Free Press Rejects Bill Without Ban on ‘Kill Switch’

Confronted by overwhelmingly negative public response, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) have gone on the defensive about legislation they plan to reintroduce this year. The “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act” as introduced in the last Congress would create virtually unchecked federal authority over key portions of the Internet—“critical infrastructure”—in times of crisis. The bill as written offers a vague definition of what constitutes an emergency, and fails to create effective checks and balances.

The senators issued a statement on Tuesday offering assurances that they do not seek to create a “kill switch” over the Internet. Whatever the intentions, Free Press believes the reportedly broad, ambiguous language of the bill and its lack of safeguards for individual freedoms are deeply troubling.

Free Press Action Fund Campaign Director Timothy Karr made the following statement:

“It’s good to see the senators have heard the outcry from Americans troubled by this bill, but their promises that the bill won’t give the president ‘kill-switch’ powers aren’t very reassuring. The devil is always in the details, and here the details suggest that this is a dangerous bill that threatens our free speech rights.

Emphasis mine. Disturbing, isn’t it?

What Role Have Multinationals Played in Egypt’s Communication Shutdown? This seems particularly dangerous either way. If we say a multinational corp must cooperate locally, you have a scenario like Egypt. If you say they are independent, you potentially enable global corporatocracy that could equally act against a nation it didn’t like.

Attempts also to control the flow of information is increasing, I think in direct response to the increased ease of distributing that information. I have no doubt that led to this: WikiLeaks and the Death of the Whistleblower Bill: Whistleblower Daily News.

The interesting thing about this level of communication, organization and information exchange on the Internet is that the tables can still be turned — the power isn’t all in the hands of the conventionally (eg, governments, corporations, etc) powerful: Mubarak’s Digital Dilemma: Why Egypt’s Internet Controls Failed

Five days after Egypt’s government cut its citizens off from the global Internet, the country has plugged in again. And not because Egypt’s revolution is over. In fact, the struggle may be just beginning, as pro-government thugs arrive to intimidate protestors and beat up journalists.

So why did Hosni Mubarak give up on the government’s total information blackout? The answer should be a lesson for other Internet-unfriendly regimes: In any modern country, argues Lucie Morillon, the head of the Internet desk for Reporters Without Borders, (RSF) keeping millions of people offline simply isn’t a sustainable approach to quelling dissent. “There are very few countries in the worlds that can be cut off from the world’s economy for this long,” she says.

Morillon names three factors that likely pushed Egypt back online: First, Egypt’s government faced the embarrassment of ignoring international pressure, including from its fairweather friends in the U.S. State Department, to restore its Internet. Second, its economy suffered from its self-imposed Internet exile; Just two days ago, the country shut down its last Internet working service provider, Noor, which hosted many banks and multi-nationals including Coca-Cola and Egypt Air.

But most importantly, Egypt’s Internet blackout simply came too late to be effective. “Protesters were in the streets,” she says. “If they were afraid that the Internet would be used as a tool of mobilization, it had already played that role.”

And the fact that the powerful are so dependent on it, also creates the pressure to keep the Internet up. I am just fascinated by this interplay. (And God knows, if you’re still reading this, you must be as well…)

An interesting note in light of how I’ve cast information in this article is this: Al Jazeera adds Egypt and Tunisia coverage to its CC video repository. The end result of putting their coverage under such licensing means that it can be (legally) distributed even more widely. Unlimited bandwith for information in a sense demands increased availability of information, which has been putting increasing pressure on the current notion of copyright.

The flow of information is such that these kind of connections pop up:
Watch: Al Jazeera on the Isolation of Bradley Manning
Bradley Manning: Punitive Psychiatric Status Remains, but Hopeful About Youth Uprising in Tunisia and Egypt
2011-01-31 Wikileaks and Human Rights: Open Letter for Support manages to weave all these elements together, in an argument for human rights.

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3 Responses to wikileaks, the internet, egypt: at the edges and intersections

  1. Laura says:

    Long post, but oh so excellent. Thanks for all the work you put into this BEG!

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