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The Internet, Social Media and Mubarak's Dangerous Game

By Charles King
Feb 8, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Anyone in the technology industry not captivated by recent events in North Africa and the Middle East needs to consider a change in career. First in Tunisia and then in Egypt, Internet-connected mobile devices and social networking sites were reportedly leveraged by protesters to effectively exchange information with one another and offer insights regarding events in their countries to a spellbound world.

The Internet, Social Media and Mubarak's Dangerous Game

Considering the news from Tunisia, where 24-year president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali hightailed it after weeks of street protests, it is no surprise that Egypt's rulers decided to pursue the quick and dirty way of controlling disruptive information: strangling it at the source. Absolutism is a common choice among autocrats. But as any engineer can tell you, quick and dirty typically does not produce effective or long-lasting results.

The seizure of mass media conduits like newspapers, radio and television stations enjoys as considerable an historical precedent as "rounding up the usual suspects." Shutting down Internet access and cellphone service, as Egypt did last week (and China did in 2009 to quell unrest in the Xinjiang Uyghur region), simply brings ham-handed tyranny fully into the 21st century.

Egypt Cuts Off Its Nose...

Egypt's Internet shutdown sparked predictable outrage -- online communities are hardly known for their reticence. Within hours of Egypt's decision to shutter ISPs, individuals and groups of every sort spoke out, with some even suggesting that Internet connectivity be officially established as a "human right." Good luck with that. Any right that depends on government-sanctioned communications infrastructures and providers will mostly be recognizable by its absence.

More importantly, Egypt's move sparked people to get to work. For example, Twitter and SayNow (recently acquired by Google), created speak2tweet, a service that allowed landline callers to post more than 3,000 messages and comments on Twitter. However, people inside Egypt proved that they could stay connected and share information successfully by using whatever means they could find, including old school faxes, ham radios and simple word of mouth.

Pulling the plug on the Internet had other implications for the country, its citizens and the ruling elite. As ISPs went dark, the greater ramifications of the Mubarak government's decision began to become apparent. Like virtually every other country in the developed world, Egypt has come to depend on the Internet to support an ever widening array of critical government, corporate and consumer processes.

Yes, those pesky social networking sites were no longer readily available to protestors. But disabling the Internet also effectively hobbled public sector offices and agencies, and closed down the Egyptian Stock Exchange, commercial banks and the country's credit rating bureau (Iscore). By shutting down the business of the Internet, Egypt also effectively put itself out of business.

The World Is Watching

The following day, markets responded by lowering the country's credit rating and warning of further severe financial consequences. With demonstrators standing firm, Egypt's rulers belatedly discovered what many businesses already have: that there are huge benefits to be gained from highly collaborative, non-centralized management models and flexible communications tools.

Some 24 hours later, Internet and cellular services were restored, but they came as Mubarak supporters and paid thugs attempted to impose with simple violence the control the central government could not. They failed, as did apparent attempts to target and silence journalists and other members of the media. Eventually, Mubarak dismissed his government and began attempts to negotiate a settlement with opposition groups.

Whatever the outcome, it's likely the discontent and imaginative facility of Egyptian and Tunisian citizens is being carefully studied by others who can easily see themselves as next in line for similar protests. Regime shakeups are already under way in Yemen and Jordan, and it would hardly be surprising to discover that others in Egypt's neighborhood are planning their own exit strategies.

Events in Cairo are also rattling windows far away from the Middle East. China's longstanding practices of filtering, monitoring and restricting Internet traffic are facing new scrutiny. In Washington, D.C., co-authors of the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, which would allow a sitting U.S. president to shut down the Internet if it came under attack, called a press conference to insist the legislation was in no way similar to the actions of the Mubarak government.

For decades, people, companies and governments have mostly seen technology as a rosy, benign reflection of social and business progress. The past weeks' news and continuing turmoil in Egypt and elsewhere may have changed that notion forever -- leading what were once simplistically considered cutting-edge IT tools to be more clearly perceived as double-edged swords.

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace.

Is "too much screen time" really a problem?
Yes -- smartphone addiction is ruining relationships.
Yes -- but primarily due to parents' failure to regulate kids' use.
Possibly -- long-term effects on health are not yet known.
Not really -- lack of self-discipline and good judgement are the problems.
No -- angst over "screen time" is just the latest overreaction to technology.
No -- what matters is the quality of content, not the time spent viewing it.