Cyber sects

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.

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2011 – reading tea leaves

It’s the end of Christmas but not quite January, that ‘no man’s land’ between family meetings, food stuffing and New Year champagne popping. You could spend the days watching old Warner Bros cartoons on YouTube whilst dunking Fox’s biscuits into endless rounds of brews (like…ooh I dunno….me) or fall back on that trusty standby of the festive period; the new year prediction game. It’s right up there with the elderly relative favourite, “Guess Which Programmes the Familiar Faced Actors Starred In”, available every Sunday afternoon from ten minutes into the episode.

It would be very easy for me to start with “LibDems will enjoy a massive resurgence in support when the knee-jerk anti-everything reactions die down a bit”. HOWEVER, I have stepped a few paces back to view the picture with a little less bias and have decided instead to predict….

It’s goodbye from Nick, but not the LibDems

Britain’s attitude to the Coalition has been interesting, as this is the first real experiment with coalition governance since the Second World War (it could be argued both cases were created through different definitions of ‘necessity’). There /is/ knee-jerk opposition for the sake of it from certain quarters, the type of “We wanted change from Labour but not this kind of change” blather which fills the comments sections of newspaper websites. The Coalition has achieved a lot since its formation (no, really, look beyond the blather and see what’s been done.)

Unfortunately (and this not going to be a diatribe), all that the Coalition is doing well has been overshadowed by the one big issue it has got completely wrong. On tuition fees for University students, the new Browne report influenced policies will have a detrimental effect on the finances of aspiring students. It’s not quite the Hell and Brimstone “class war” I’ve been hearing, but it’s not quite the place any LibDem supporters wanted to find themselves.

For putting us into Government and threading our fairness agenda through the Conservative-led programme for government, Nick Clegg has to receive a lot of credit. He has taken us supporters somewhere we never thought possible. But, and it’s a biggie, the way he has dragged over our party’s reputation such a large and dark shadow that no further ‘good’ can be completely out of this shadow of ‘bad’. Clegg remains an electoral liability when we need certainty and credibility; we cannot win the AV referendum with a man who called it “a miserable little compromise” leading the charge.

I therefore make the first prediction – that the man who took us into Government will step down before May to give us the best chance of coming out of that process with decent results and a referendum win.

(Okay, so…one-plus-a-bit predictions there, there’s no hard and fast rules about the constraints and such round here…)

Clegg is not the only “Nick” in politics, nor the only one whose leadership is mired in controversy and criticism. Having kept close eyes on the court cases and on-line reactions (always pays to lurk on internet forums), my next prediction has to be…

The slow, certain demise of the British National Party

This is a BIT ‘wishful thinking’ but forgive me. The BNP have been in serious decline for years. Their two victories at the European Elections (Nick Griffin in North West England, Andrew Brons in Yorkshire & Humber) was not followed up by any serious attempt to make hay while the country grumbled. In front of the Question Time audience, Griffin was an embarrassment, firing off his oft-rehearsed anti-everything rhetoric without once hitting a valid target.

The court cases brought against the BNP tell only one part of the story of its certain demise. At the general election, Griffin finished 3rd in the Barking constituency he targeted with more effort than any other. Running parallel to the cases, a general sense of malaise and leadership doubts, has been the upshoot in support for unelected protest groups such as the English Defence League (EDL). Rather tragically for Griffin, his attempts to rebrand his party as electorally credible has been compromised by the attraction of stomping through provincial town centres chanting “You’re Not English Any More” at anyone within ear-shot. The irony can’t be too easy to miss within the BNP.

My prediction therefore is for Griffin to downgrade the BNP to a lobby-group around May (when his party will suffer terribly at the polls, there’s another extra-prediction), though he will remain as an MEP. I suspect the many splinter groups who will come from the BNP before, during and following May will almost all disappear from existence before 2011 is out, leaving the far-right as electorally feckered as the far-left.

The world’s political scene is messy enough now so I darem’t poke a toe into any prediction waters. There are countless potential flash points – unrest in Korea, Obama’s reputation within and beyond the US borders, how the eurozone breaks out of the economic quicksand, Russia (….pretty much everything related thereto….) I’ll begin with…

Africa is the place to turn…towards Asia

Unrest in Côte d’Ivoire, almost certain unrest in Sudan even before the South Sudanese referendum is put, uncertainty in Egypt’s leadership, continued problems in Somalia and Eritrea….Maybe there is always going to be ‘easy pickings’ from looking at Africa and assuming there will be disquiet and disharmony.

2011 will be different, I think; there is increased international financial investment in African states with much to give (China, of course, being the biggest donating country). The ‘pull’ of northern, Arabic Africa from the rest of the continent must seem immense.

A reshaping of political and economic powerhouses is inevitable, as the move away from ‘the West’ to ‘the East’ continues. Europe especially will struggle to meet the challenges of the tipped balance. I worry that, militarily, the West will be pressed into action where there may not be obvious requirements yet today. Economically, Africa will look east.

Economic and political uncertainty across Europe has already manifested itself in riots and protests. I cannot see these dying down over night. There is fear and there is anger, vocal opposition in Ireland, France and the UK towards their Governments, and across Western Europe generally a mood of change is fresh on the wind.

Protests – but not revolution – will still be on the march

The nation states of Europe brought into ‘the age of austerity’ will continue to battle internal pressure and external economic constraints. Storms of uncertainty and unrest will feed the flames, so I cannot see London or Dublin or Paris or Madrid coming out of 2011 without serious and violent protests. The ‘long term’ view, espoused by some in Britain, that the protests are a curtain raiser for forms of ‘uprising’ are particularly silly (and just as “ideologically led” in their dreaming as the protesters allege are the cuts being proposed by government.)

Change and entrenchment of opinion is on the way, that is undeniable, though it seems still to be much light and little heat. Unions and protest groups such as “UKUncut” must keep public sympathy on their side. Similarly, the police will be under more pressure and scrutiny than before, and need to keep both the politicians and public confident in their ability and behaviour.

My prediction…predictions…That an event next year will fundamentally change the relationship between both protesters and public…and possibly between different elements of the protesters too….Not necessarily for the worse or better, just….altered. I am also very sure the police will make another severe mistake in their handling of the protests, one which changes the relationship between police and politicians, police and protesters, and importantly (most fundamentally) between police and members of the public.

(I am not anti-protest at all, looking with a wider view on the recent London protests shows there’s many subjects being stirred around the pot, from tuition fees specifically to anti-establishment generally. I’m not about to suggest that a National-Anarchist revolution is around the corner, heaven forfend…The amount of antagonism and how it manifests will be highly significant next year)

Right, so we have the politics out the way, what else do we have to occupy our time? Oh yeah, the Internet….

Google buys Twitter, Facebook fades, and as for censorship…

Twitter is what you make of it, just follow ‘slebs and you get what you pay for. Well, indeed, that’s the whole point. For all the real-time reactions and ‘two-screening’ (I’m not making that up) the cost is….nil. Though it’s not likely to increase from nowt next year, the business model missing from the centre of Twitter will need to be filled; I predict Google will realise it is missing out from all that lovely search revenue and put in a serious bid for the 140-character blogging bird before the days get shorter.

Whilst Twitter continues to advance, Facebook stumbles and stutters. There’s something not quite….all there with the social network that has spawned a film and a step-change in how we interact with friends and family. Its constant tinkers, complicated security and privacy settings and never ending hunger for more personal info (“It won’t be long before you can email your Info tab to future employers,” as a friend put it), has turned Facebook from the first visit of the morning to something fast becoming an afterthought. Got a Tumblr yet…? Just asking….(I haven’t, but if there’s anywhere to go after Facebook, there’s one very obvious place next….)

I predict further problems and issues as Facebook begins to lose its grip on the world’s social networkers.

Issues of net neutrality, and tighter whips for ISPs to crack (see what the UK passed prior to the election and proposals to restrict access to pornography show that the State has not yet managed to exhaust itself in the pursuit of greater control of its citizens on-line. China may be the “archetypal” national guard against the world wide web; I predict however that Western countries will put down their collective fists in 2011.

(It will be interesting to see how the ‘protest movement’ vibe runs into the ‘restricted internet’ debate, will “UKUncut” take on an additional meaning?)

And finally….There’s the small matter of sport and all that jazz, so in a roundup roundabout sort of way….

I’m assuming the Best Film Oscar will go the way of Inception (no, I’ve not seen it), though a cheeky fiver on Toy Story 3 wouldn’t go amiss for a curveball (no, I’ve not seen that one either). As this year seems to have been ‘the year 3D came back from the dead…again’, next year shows to signs of stopping. I’ll go for a 3D film winning the majority of Oscars in 2012, for a long-term pitch.

This season’s Premier League will be won by Manchester Utd…Yes, I know, it’s a bit obvious a shout, but all credible challengers are having a stumble and Utd have previous in making good when the opposition look away temporarily. So it makes me sound a bit Lawro, deal with it…..

…Right, so 2010 was a right old messy one, for all manner of reasons. Who can possibly predict what will come?

Thanks to all my readers, vistors and comment scribers. Here’s to the Missives still being the place to be next year…