The other context that matters is historical. The long, rich, heterogeneous history of the states and cultures in the Middle East and North Africa, not easily lumped together despite their geographic proximity, matters enormously to the outcome of each of these uprisings. The way that the Muslim Brotherhood has been treated in the past by the state, the brutality of the police, and the fact that the Internet had not previously been filtered extensively in Egypt, for instance, each mattered to the outcome there. The internal strife in regions within Libya appears pivotal to Qaddafi’s efforts to cling to power. Any number of these differences might matter more than, say, the rate of Facebook and Twitter penetration in either state.
The history of the Internet itself also matters. Those of us who work on the OpenNet Initiative, which studies the way in which states filter and practice surveillance over the network around the world, have broken down the history of the Internet into four phases. The first is the “open Internet” period, from the network’s birth through about 2000. In this period, there were few restrictions on the network globally. There was even an argument about whether the network could itself be regulated. This sense of unfettered freedom is a distant memory today.
In the “access denied” period that followed, through about 2005, states like China, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and dozens of others began to block access to certain information online. They developed technical Internet filtering modes to stop people from reaching certain websites, commonly including material deemed sensitive for political, cultural, or religious reasons.
The most recent period, “access controlled,” through 2010 or so, was characterized by the growth in the sophistication with which states began to control the flow of information online. Internet filtering grew in scope and scale, especially throughout Asia, the former Soviet states, and the Middle East and North Africa. Techniques to use the network for surveillance grew dramatically, as did “just-in-time” blocking approaches such as the use of distributed denial-of-service attacks against undesirable content. Overall, states got much more effective at pushing back on the use of the Internet by those who wished to share information broadly and for prodemocratic purposes.
Today, we are entering a period that we should call “access contested.” Activists around the world are pushing back on the denial of access and controls put in place by states that wish to restrict the free flow of information. This round of the contest, at least in the Middle East and North Africa, is being won by those who are using the network to organize against autocratic regimes. Online communities such as Herdict.org and peer-to-peer technologies like mesh networking provide specific ways for people to get involved directly in shaping how these technologies develop around the world.
But it would be a big mistake to presume that this state of affairs will last for long, or that it is an inevitable outcome. History shows us that there are cycles to the way that technologies, and how we use them, change over time, as Timothy Wu argues in his new book, The Master Switch. The leaders of many states, like China, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, have proven able to use the Internet to restrict online discussion and to put people into jail for what they do using the network. We should resist the urge to cheer the triumph of pro-Western democracy fueled by widespread Internet access and usage. The contest for control of the Internet is only just beginning.
John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School and faculty codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. With Ronald Deibert, Rafal Rohozinski, and Jonathan Zittrain, he is the co-editor of three books on this topic: Access Denied (2008), Access Controlled (2010), and Access Contested (forthcoming), all with MIT Press.
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