Censorship of Cyber Space: Lessons from Egypt

This guest post from Technology - Academics - Policy (TAP) goes beyond the headlines of the recent events in Egypt that demonstrated just how powerful communication via social networking can be. Also included are links to must-read articles on Internet censorship.

This guest post is from Technology – Academics – Policy (TAP), a forum for academics leading the dialogue on the impact of technological innovation. Every now and again, it’s important for us to slow down and give these subjects a deep think.

The recent events in Egypt have shown the world just how powerful communication via the Internet, especially with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, can be in disseminating news and organizing group actions.

Likewise, the online blackout that occurred in Egypt for five days following the Egyptian government’s orders to all Internet service providers to shut off connectivity, illustrates how fragile individual freedom of expression as well as journalists’ access to real-life accounts of activities can be via the Internet in times of political crisis.

Though extreme, the event in Egypt is not the first time a government has implemented national-level Internet shutdowns in reaction to political events. In September 2007, the Burmese government completely shut down Internet connectivity when the monks took to the streets in the Saffron Revolution. In February 2005, Nepal disconnected all international Internet connections in the country following a declaration of martial law by the King.

Internet censorship in Egypt

TAP academic, John Palfrey, Professor of Law and Co-Director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society has been actively engaged in the discussions about Internet censorship in Egypt. Below is a list of some of his recent quotes in news articles on this timely subject:

First, Professor Palfrey wrote an op-ed piece for the Daily News, “Twitter and Facebook, Step Up: Egypt Protests Raise Bar on Corporate Responsibility.” In this piece, Palfrey discusses the responsibility social networking companies such as Twitter and Facebook have in shaping global rights to freedom of expression.

“This is part of a very troubling trend: As people, especially young people, get ever savvier in harnessing new technologies, threatened governments get more and more sophisticated at using the Internet for surveillance, censorship and hacking.”

“If the market does not work and companies do not come together voluntarily, we will need other mechanisms to ensure that platforms like Twitter and Facebook and many mobile digital tools – and those that will inevitably come after them – will stay live in times of crisis.”

“With great success in terms of global adoption comes great responsibility for companies like Twitter and Facebook.”

In a Washington Post article, “Facebook Treads Carefully after Its Vital Role in Egypt’s Anti-Mubarak Protests” Professor Palfrey is quoted: “The good news for Twitter and Facebook is how important they are, and one should congratulate them for being critical tools. But also, there is an obligation that comes with that level of adoption.”

In Harvard Crimson, “Facebook at Center of Egypt Protests,” Professor Palfrey outlines that while websites are bound to follow local law in the countries in which their users reside, local statutes sometimes conflict with the core values of the sites. “For example, if the Egyptian government petitioned Facebook to release names of all citizens who organized protests on the site, Facebook would be obligated under local law to comply.”

On the day that Egypt shut down all Internet connectivity, Professor Palfrey was quoted in the Silicon Valley (“Internet Technology a Tool for Political Change in Arab World“): “Egypt is far from alone in seeing the Internet and other new technology as threats. The number of countries censoring or blocking at least some Internet content has increased from two about 10 years ago to three dozen now.”

Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, and Palfrey’s Co-Director at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also been recently quoted on this censorship issue. In a Wall Street Journal article, he said that most of the tools used to get around Internet firewalls or throttling “don’t assume the plug would be pulled.” He added that, “The toolbox for responding to a complete denial is pretty bare.”

For more in-depth information on Internet censorship, these articles are a good place to start:

Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering,” written by Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey (with Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski), surveys censorship and filtering of the Internet around the world. The authors state that while the technologies used for filtering are always being upgraded and new methods are developed, the Internet’s complexity makes it very hard to control. The article acknowledges that corporations providing Internet-related services become participants in filtering, yet it proposes that they should begin to work on a code of conduct to guide them in their activities with filtering states. If the corporations present a united front they can resist excessive state demands.

In “Censorship 2.0,” Professor Palfrey (with Robert Faris and Stephanie Wang) explores how nations attempt to control online content. Given that attempts to control Internet content have been hard to address through law or regulation, public-private dialogues are important. The article points to Google’s efforts to create a web search service that did not list sites considered controversial in China, arguing that overall, Chinese citizens would have more access to information than without it. However, in late 2009 there was a security breach with Google’s site in China which led to Google’s decision to phase out censoring the results in google.cn, the Chinese-language version of its search engine.

Of final note, last year, following the above-mentioned security breach with Google’s site in China, Professor Zittrain wrote a blog for TAP, “Consider This: A Mutual Aid Treaty for the Internet.” In it, he proposed designing “new protocols so that participating web sites can share information with one another, and in the event one goes down, others can mirror what had been there, in exchange for similar help should they be the next victims.” In this post, Professor Zittrain presents information about the site Herdict where users can report when they can’t get to a given site. Now a year later, with the recent events in Egypt, Herdict has been closely tracking reported Internet inaccessibility from the ground in Egypt.

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