Let’s start this post off by saying, what’s going on World?
In only a few months, we’ve witnessed the demise of two longstanding dictatorships, Libya is at the brink of civil war and now Japan is in a state of emergency after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the country. We’ve seen a revolution happen in developing countries aided by the Internet; we’ve seen the world’s third largest economy virtually wiped out by a staggering natural disaster.
For every good, there is a bad. And, in the age of the Internet, people are harnessing the power of information to try and make things right.
Many have called the Middle East protests: Revolution 2.0, a name which strongly supports the statement by Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who is now considered a symbol of the revolution in Egypt, that: “If you want to liberate a country, give them the Internet”.
Bloggers in Tahrir Square coordinate protests in Egypt via Facebook and Twitter
The Internet enables people to communicate, connect and share information in a way never before possible. Its ubiquity has made it a global necessity, essential as much to communication as to commerce- and taking it away from people is taking away their access to information and right to freedom of speech.
Ghonim (left) was one of the key players in organizing the opposition in Egypt and utilized social media to help liberate his people from a 30 year dictatorship. Initiating his coup by creating the Facbook page “We are all Khaled Saeed” in support of the Egyptian blogger who, according to Al Jazeera English, was beaten to death for having video evidence implicating members of the Egyptian police in a drug deal, the Facebook page gained over 400,000 Egyptian followers and was used to promote democracy and organize protests in Cairo.
But also to deceive authorities.
Along with 15 other young professionals, the clan of Egyptian activists communicated secretly though Goggle Chat (deemed safest from government spying) and planted false rumors that would mislead police as to the real whereabouts of the protests.
Web 2.0 undoubtedly played a significant role in organizing and coordinating protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and was a vehicle for disseminating news, videos and pictures of what was happening there to the rest of the world. A way to communicate, share and collaborate in a virtual world that knows no borders, these revolutionary protests demonstrated the powerful role social media plays in spreading freedom of information and political influence.
But what happens when the government tries to take this power away from people?
Soon after the protests began in Tunisia, news websites, Facebook pages carrying critical content, blogs, and journalists’ e-mail accounts were being blocked by the state-run Tunisian Internet Agency. (Tunisia is considered one of the 10 worst countries worldwide to be a blogger.)
In Egypt, Facebook, Twitter and for some time, SMS were also being blocked.
Yet despite these countries’ temporary digital blackouts, people were able to resort to other technologies, finding unique ways to bypass the blockages so they could log on to sites such as Twitter and Facebook to restore communication with the outside world.
Here were some of the main ways information and freedom of speech prevailed:
A small group of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow set up a service that requires no Internet connection and gives anyone has the ability to tweet using just a voice connection. By simply leaving a voicemail on one of several dedicated international phone numbers provided, the service instantly tweets the message using the hashtag #egypt. People can then listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to twitter.com/speak2tweet.
The Fax Machine:
No noise could have been sweeter than that of the fax machine when online activists and others wanting to contact people inside Egypt were sending faxes to pass on information about how to restore Internet access. BBC reported that the Internet activist group Anonymous was also using faxes to send out WikiLeaks cables relating to Egypt to students at several schools in the country.
Mobile & Third Party apps:
Third party applications like TweetDeck and Hootsuite enabled users to update their Twitter and Facebook accounts. HootSuite gave users to access the site by dialing in to a server in North America from their mobile phones. While HootSuite users typically have to sign up at Twitter.com — one of the sites that was blocked — they could circumvent that step with an iPhone, as HootSuite’s app doesn’t require a web authentication.
One of the most common ways to bypass the blocks was through proxy servers. Facebook users were sharing several proxy sites to access the site and enables access to other blocked sites.
Proxy software like Tor, a free software and open network that helps you defend against network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy enabled users to browse the web anonymously after downloading and installing the software. .
While some people in Cairo were setting up ad-hoc dial-up network connections from landline phones, others were are using a virtual private network (VPN) to not only access blocked sites, but make the censors believe they were trying to access the sites from another country.
Social networks have been abundantly useful in propagating news and information in some of the world’s most censored countries. It comes back to what Ghonim says, “If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet”. In contrast, oppressive governments seem to say “If you want to repress a people, take it away from them”. At this juncture, a world without Internet is unfathomable. The Internet is the new frontier- and what the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt showcased is that people can and will find ways to overcome oppression.