Reading in full detail how Egyptian authorities effectively isolated their nation from the rest of the world through one simple act of denying Internet access puts into focus our own complacent attitude to the icon we double-click almost without thinking every morning at work, or every night at home. For the Chinese living under their own stringent regime, even searching for the word ‘Egypt’ has become impossible.
Hardship at a time like this promotes ingenuity; Al Jazeera [whose coverage has been compelling viewing, the channel coming of age as CNN did during the first Gulf War] reports the uptake of dail-up and proxy accounts has soared. Chinese Internet users have been making subtle changes to the spelling of ‘Egypt’ [埃及] to circumvent the ‘No search results can be found’ generated message. Through enthusiastic social media interaction and co-operation around the globe, the development of uprisings and protests across North Africa and beyond has been tracked and followed despite the crackdowns on communication.
Whilst news coverage of Egypt filled our laptop screens, protests in London and Manchester against tax evasion, Government spending cuts and public service reform attracted coverage of the BBC and SKY. Some placards drew parallels between their message and that of the Egyptian protesters, urging the NUS and UKUncut-led umbrella movement to ‘walk like Egyptians’. Cyber-communication played a vital part in organising and maintaining the British marches; the website Sukey [http://sukey.org/] enables protesters to stay ‘one step ahead of trouble’, utilising programmes such as Twitter and Google Maps, and “wisdom of the crowds”, to avoid marching into violence or kettles.
Whilst many of the most poor Egyptian protesters would gladly have a fraction of the life of their UKUncut equivalents, parallels between the ostensibly different circumstances can be drawn. Access to the Internet, affordable over-the-net communication and cheaper mobile phones has empowered the most disenfranchised and redressed the balance between the ruled and their rulers.
How did we get to this stage? And how complacent are we in the West to the ‘right’ of Internet access?
As somebody who remembers the need to wait 4 minutes for the completion of the dial-up tone before accessing Netscape whilst living at home, the strides taken from then and now are beyond comprehension. Schoolchildren in the UK today have grown up with home or school web access almost as a ‘given’. The poorest children in Britain are in serious danger of being left behind as the incessant march towards technological advancement creates a two-tier system at the earliest, most important stage in a child’s educational development. Governments of all colours, and organisations and companies which manufacture computers, are complicit in this digital divide: we are all complacent as we punch in search terms on Wikipedia or Google or YouTube.
Re-defining what the Internet is, can be, could be, will be the next struggle for those on both sides of the protesting marches throughout this year and future years. Guns and fighter jets are no use against cybercrimes or mass denial of service attacks; Governments cannot rule where there are no borders. Ultimately, though, the question should be “for whom”, not “for what”. Freedom of speech, freedom to protest, the right to exist above the poverty line: these are the “rights” whilst Internet access itself is the “privilege”. From the very trivial – only having email address to a company or service – to the most vital – having blogs censored or deleted by the State – however politics and people exist this year, the world-wide-web is inextricably linked.