For all that the revolution in Egypt tells us about the power of networked media to promote bottom-up change, it even more starkly reveals the limits of our internet tools and the ease with which those holding power can take them away.
Yes, services such as Twitter and Facebook give activists the means to organize as never before. But the more dependent on them we become, the more subservient we are to the corporations and governments that control them.
Some of us might like to believe that the genie is out of the bottle and that we all have access to an unstoppable decentralized network. In reality, the internet is entirely controlled by central authorities.
Old media, such as terrestrial radio and television, were as distributed as the thousands of stations and antennae from which broadcast signals emanated, but all internet traffic must pass through government and corporate-owned choke points.
That’s why President Hosni Mubarak’s regime had so little trouble shutting down his citizens’ networks when he wanted to. One phone call to each of the four internet service providers in his country was all it took. And while we might like to believe that couldn’t happen in the United States, we should remember that all it took was a call from Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut, to Amazon for the corporation to shut down WikiLeaks’ website recently.
Meanwhile, UK’s Vodafone complied with Mubarak’s orders first to turn off cell phone use in Egypt, and later to flood cell phone users with incendiary pro-government messages.
More virtual ink was spilled in the United States about Vodafone-partner Verizon’s version of the iPhone than on Vodafone’s utter complicity in the violence fomented by the commands it promoted through its networks. Although Vodafone continues to apologize publicly for its ongoing policy of serving the goon squads of a dictatorial regime, it has also continued to follow that regime’s orders.
If bottom-up networks are this dependent on the good graces of top-down authorities for their very functioning, then how bottom-up are they? While in the United States we may have policies protecting free speech and open communication, it is these laws — and not some feature of our internet — that prevent the kinds of censorship we are witnessing in Egypt.
And, as we saw when push came to shove over WikiLeaks in the United States, how quickly this very same authority can be used to cut off “enemies of the state” from access and funding.
Good, you might say. We don’t want people to be able to connect and communicate about anything at all, do we? Isn’t it good to have a circuit breaker somewhere? A trusted authority in charge who can prevent people from saying the wrong things to each other? Perhaps.
But if we believe our society is capable of engaging in the democratic process, we must trust its people to share their thoughts and ideas — their words — directly with one another, no matter how threatening to those currently in power.
The vulnerability of today’s communications infrastructure to the whims of the governments and corporations who administrate it makes it an unsuitable platform for this process to occur.
We might better use the lessons of the internet to build a communications infrastructure that cannot be controlled from the top. For while the internet may have been built with an underlying architecture of central servers, corporate-owned pipelines and government-managed indexes, there are many less centralized alternatives, some of which have been used successfully in the past.
Back before the internet, many of us early computer hobbyists networked on something called Fidonet. It was a simple peer-to-peer network where users’ computers would just call each other at night through their old-fashioned modems, exchange information and then move on. It was slow — e-mail could take a day or two to reach someone under this scheme — but it suggested a way of doing things independent of a centralized authority.
Today, faced with the limits of the internet, digital activists are reviving such ideas. One of them, “mesh networking,” would let people connect simply by opening their Wi-Fi networks to incoming traffic. The inhabitants of an entire city could be connected to one another, without anyone even having an internet service provider. Then that city can connect to another, and so on.
Until we choose to develop such alternative networks, our insistence on seeing the likes of Facebook and Twitter as the path toward freedom for all people will only serve to increase our dependence on corporations and government for the right to assemble and communicate.