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Tank covered with anti-Mubarak graffiti (cc) Monasosh

On Thursday January 27, the Egyptian government did something extraordinary–it “turned off the internet” within the country’s own borders. There’s no mystery about how this happened – the Egyptian government owns the largest service provider in the country and had only to make a few phone calls to bring the remaining ISPs in line.

The old fashioned nature of this technological shutdown – human beings switching off Border Gateway Protocol routers at the point of a gun, more or less – suggests that Egypt’s leadership has yet to consider the consequences of such an act, economic and otherwise.

Destruction of your own increasingly-vital communications infrastructure is known as the Dictator’s Dilemma. It’s a concept explored by economist and later secretary of state George Shultz, and was born in a very different era–the mid-80’s ascent to power of Gorbachev, who is reported to have been directly influenced by the notion that an increasingly information-dependent economy could not thrive when information itself was prevented from flowing freely within and outside a country.

Again and again, from Myanmar to Iran, the Internet has demonstrated an ability to facilitate the organization of social and political protest, if not revolution. Countries wishing to avoid its facility for aiding organized resistance, such as Cuba, are forced to forgo the benefits of an information society altogether.

China, of course, is an exception to this rule – but one that proves its utility with respect to Egypt, argues sociologist Zeynep Turekci. Internet filtering on the scale accomplished by China works precisely because the populace is relatively happy (relative to Egypt, let’s say) with the current regime. When discord reaches the level it has in Egypt, the government that wishes to retain power by non-democratic means has no choice but to sacrifice the economic productivity enabled by information technology on the altar of control.

That Egypt resorted to a complete shutdown of its connection to the internet could indicate that its government is simply less sophisticated about using the Internet for social control than the government of China, or even Tunisia, where the government may have used Facebook to spy on the populace.

Indeed, in a recent talk at Columbia University’s school of journalism, journalist Evgeny Morozov discussed his book The Net Delusion, in which he argues that the Internet can just as easily be used as a tool for oppressors. As NPR reported:

Authoritarian governments can harness the Internet’s power to serve their purposes as well. Some use it for surveillance, Morozov says, “tracking down what’s happening on social networks, trying to identify who are all of those people tweeting.”

[…] Taken together with more traditional censorship efforts, Morozov says, the Internet “actually empowers the other side much more than it does the social movements and the dissidents and the human rights activists.”

What makes communication and community building so powerful on the Internet is its public nature – everyone who is similarly disaffected can find common cause. But for precisely the same reason, the Internet can make it apparent to authorities who should be locked up first; indeed, simple network analysis of the sort regularly conducted by academics could even grant oppressive regimes deep insight into who are the leaders, or the most influential communicators, for nascent movements.

That Egypt was forced to shut down the Internet while China merely filters it is not only a measure of the more-advanced deterioration of the state of Egypt; it is also a measure of the technological sophistication of its citizens relative to its government. In a country where users are ahead of the authorities in terms of their ability to exploit the relatively new “social” media, blunt instruments must be used, and the economic consequences for Egypt could be profound.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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