Libyan Internet Blackouts Feel Like A "Post-Apocalyptic Scenario"

Internet Blackouts Across the World Spark Conversation Over Freedom of Speech and Raise Awareness of the Political Potentials of Social Media

Just days after internet connection was restored to Libya, North Africa, news reports claim government authorities have once again blocked access. On Monday, the internet was working intermittently, but as of today, most Libyans could not log on.

According to IT News Africa, The first blackout occurred on February 18, but Internet access was restored after being completely cut for 7 hours. Analysts estimated that the Libyan government was imposing an internet blackout period to censor coverage of the anti-government protests, not unlike the internet censorship in Egypt this past January.

“It’s like a post-apocalyptic scenario” said James Cowie in an interview with IT News Africa. Cowie is the chief technology officer of Renesys, an information technology consultancy. “The roads are there, there just isn’t any traffic,” he says, speaking about the internet kill, which basically blocks satellite connections from responding without destroying the digital infrastructure.

Governments are realizing the powerful potencies of the internet and social media, which allows citizens a space connect, organize, and share information. A recent article in The Economist chronicles the history of governments intervening with internet connection, demonstrating how authorities will often attempt to control their citizens via internet blackouts as a means of dividing online communities:

“In 2007 the authorities in Myanmar cut internet connections to counter anti-government demonstrations. Two years earlier a similar move severed services in Nepal. During the unrest in Tunisia in January, the authorities censored some news and social networking sites; Iran and Thailand have done likewise. Following ethnic riots in its Xinjiang province in 2009, China blocked e-mail, text messages and all but a handful of websites in the region as part of disruption that lasted for ten months.”

According the the article, three days before Egypt’s autocrats cut internet connection in January, the American senate “reintroduced a bill granting the president emergency powers to shut down parts of the nation’s internet as a defense against cyber-attack.” While some were suspicious over the timing, American authorities assured citizens that the bill was reintroduced as a means of clarifying and limiting governmental authority, and the reintroduction of the bill should not be taken as evidence of any plans for an American internet blackout.

The author writes that an American internet kill-switch plan would be much more difficult to execute than in Egypt. Unlike internet connection in Egypt, which is powered by five main providers, internet connection in the U.S. is provided by a number of companies, the top five of which only account for half the market. Killing American internet connection would “require the co-operation or coercion of many hundreds of companies and individuals.” (qtd from The Economist)

As the internet and social media become increasingly potent tools for activism, we should be demanding internet access as integral to our basic rights and freedoms. If we value democracy as much as our Eastern neighbors are fighting – and dying – for, then we need laws protecting freedom of speech and prohibiting censorship – both in our lived realities and in our virtual ones.

Image via The Economist

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