Lessons on connectivity and social media from Egypt
When Egypt shut down its Internet service providers in a clumsy attempt to stifle dissent, it may have just ended up costing its economy $18 million a day, according to new figures from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But Egypt also illustrated some modern truths, even if they are not as clear-cut as might be hoped.
First, "shutting down the Internet" proved difficult even for a government that could pretty much order its ISPs to go offline over the phone. During the blackout period, Egyptians scrambled to connect to the Internet through alternate means, including dialing into international ISPs and using mobile phones as network access points. To have completely disconnected the Internet, the government would have had to keep the mobile networks down (it did so for only a day) and also shut down the landline networks. At no point was it entirely impossible to connect to the Internet.
Second, even though most Internet users had their connection blocked, the lack of social media tools did not hamper protestors' momentum. Genuine social change really doesn't need social media.
But here's why neither of those two lessons might be completely accurate.
While Egypt is an authoritarian country, it isn't totalitarian. Countries with even more repressive governments and economies less integrated in the wider world would be able to take on the extra measures to totally disconnect themselves, or at least make workarounds far too expensive and complicated to have any effect on events. The Internet is robust, but still vulnerable at the transportation layer.
As for social media, its role in Egypt might have been less important than it would have been in a more repressive country. Freedom of movement, communication and assembly existed in sufficient quantity so that even when Facebook disappeared, word of the protests were spread to a critical mass of people. But in harsher countries, social media can still serve as a catalyst for mass movements when it's able to connect enough like-minded people otherwise separated--just as a catalyst, however, and probably a weak one at that. As Egypt shows, strength comes in physical, not virtual, presence--those who think that social networking is in itself a revolution remain clearly deluded.
What happens next in Egypt is uncertain. Violence, probably provoked by government-paid thugs, has spread around Cairo. Even should protesters prevail in removing Hosni Mubarak from this three-decade presidential perch, the chances of a secular democracy succeeding are uncertain. Like much about what's happened there lately, the picture is mixed. - Dave