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Middle East Conflict and an Internet Tipping Point

Social media sites have played a huge role in the prodemocracy surge—but states have also been very good at using technology to suppress their people.
February 25, 2011

First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, now in Libya: technologically savvy protestors are making extraordinary use of the Internet and digital media to support mass movements against autocratic governments.  The Twitter hashtag #jan25 and its corresponding date in history will mark a change in how those seeking to cling to power will look at networked digital technologies for the coming generation.

Web warriors: Egyptian anti-government bloggers work from Cairo’s Tahrir square.

But before we get too excited about the future of global democracy, we should put the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa in their proper context.  One context is regional. The other is historical. 

The regional context is crucial. The way that activists, and relatively passive citizens, for that matter, use digital technologies in civic life is very different in different parts of the world.

In the United States, the way the Internet has driven sociopolitical change has been limited. Technology visionaries like Chris Hughes, the Facebook cofounder and a leader of then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign organizing efforts, use these tools to improve classic offline campaigning tactics, like door-knocking and get-out-the-vote.  Since the election, Hughes has turned his efforts to organizing groups to give more generously to philanthropy through a site called Jumo. This kind of sophisticated usage of the Internet in well-established democracies is effective, but not (yet) transformative. Perhaps our discourse is richer for the contributions of bloggers and others writing in what Yochai Benkler calls the “networked public sphere.” But the kind of change that we see in long-standing (I hesitate to say “advanced”) democracies is, so far, marginal.

On a different end of the spectrum, some of the world’s strongest autocrats have managed to overcome Internet-supported protests in their streets. The response of Iran’s government to the protests in 2009, despite quite effective use of the Internet to coordinate protests and to alert the world to atrocities on the ground in Tehran, was to crush the protests, punish the offending organizers, and get back to the business of running the state. The Internet may have helped organize the revolt, but it also might have given the Iranian state an effective way to track organizers down and prosecute them. The military junta in Burma in 2007 similarly survived the use of cell phones to organize and share pictures of monks marching in the streets.  Examples of the triumph of states over Internet-fueled protests are easy to come by.

The point is that the technology matters far less than the context of the politics, culture, and history of the place and people involved in using the technologies. In Tunisia and Egypt, it was crucial that a minimal number of people, commonly both young and elite, had high literacy rates, access to the technologies, and skill in using them. These states have very large youth populations and growing levels of sophistication, at least among the children of the wealthy, in their access to and use of digital technologies. One organizer of the Egyptian uprisings is now known to have been 30-year-old Google executive Wael Ghonim. He had created a Facebook page to commemorate 28-year-old Khaled Said, a businessman beaten by police the previous June. The sophistication of the activists and the corresponding lack of sophistication of the autocrats matters enormously.

The regional context matters in another way. It is plausible that the domino effect that we are witnessing in the Middle East and North Africa has something to do with the network as well. In some respects, common language and use of the same Internet-based tools is more important in a digitally mediated world than geopolitical boundaries are. The fact that the uprising in Tunisia prompted sympathetic protests in the region, and as far away as Turkey, may have something to do with the extent to which digital networks carried news of the uprisings very quickly, through social media and formal news outlets, in Arabic, English, French, and other languages. This is not to say that the governments in Libya and Bahrain will necessarily experience what the governments in Tunisia and Egypt have. It is instead to say that linguistic and regional affinities may be strengthened through digital networks, and may in turn lead to tinderbox-like conditions in certain regional settings. 

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 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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