Mideast protesters reject repressive regimes; remain tethered to tech they can’t control

Protesters fed up with political repression, corruption and poverty (particularly recent food price inflation) toppled the government of Tunisia. They threaten to do the same in other countries throughout the Mideast as pundits hail the “Twitter and Facebook revolution.” But repressive governments have as much compunction about shutting down communication services as they do about torturing dissidents.

Egypt has cut all Internet access and most mobile phone service as huge protests threaten to topple that government. For a while the ISP Noor remained online — largely because it connects the country’s Stock Exchange and many offices of foreign companies to the outside world. Noor has now been cut off as well.

Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have some of the largest percentages of the population online in Africa. Egypt’s Communications Minister, Tarek Kamel, was secretary and co-founder of the global Internet Society’s Egyptian Chapter (which is no longer active). He is still listed as a member of the Board of Trustees on the Internet Society’s website. The Internet Society has strongly denounced the Internet shutdown.

Kamel is widely recognized as the person who brought the Internet to Egypt. He has publicly supported the open development of the Internet. His bio on the Internet Society’s website states that in the early years of the development of the Internet in Egypt, “Kamel’s work extended into liberalization issues such as a tax reduction for ISPs as well as a government/private sector partnership to serve the Egyptian Internet community. He has actively participated in the establishment of community centers in remote areas to bring the Internet to the have-nots.” His role in the shutdown is unknown, although he wasn’t among the cabinet members removed in the shakeup of the Egyptian government in the wake of the protests.

Cutting off most communication with the outside world for an extended period would be economic suicide for any modern, developed country, but temporary interruption — long enough to kill or imprison a large number of protesters without too much visibility for squeamish foreign allies — is viable for a poor country ruled by an elite supported by gifts of military technology from wealthier countries.

The protesters’ vulnerability is relying on highly centralized communication networks and services while fighting an overly centralized political system. The younger ones probably don’t have any memory of being without mobile phones and the Internet and may have taken them for granted.

To succeed in the face of violent repression and the shutdown of Internet and phone service, they must quickly develop low-tech strategies that are as fast and flexible as the ones that have been lost.

Another approach is to build communication services that cannot be intercepted or shut down. Human rights activists and hackers are already starting to do it with combination of low-cost commodity hardware and free open source software:

  • Landlines still work in Egypt and a French ISP FDN offers free dialup Internet to Egyptians. Instructions to connect to foreign ISPs via dialup with a mobile phone are also being circulated for those who can use them.
  • For Egyptians who are still able to use their mobile phones, there is Sukey, “a security-conscious news, communications and logistics support service principally for use by demonstrators during demonstrations.”
  • Tech entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar put a call out on Twitter for volunteers to help construct self-configuring unblockable mobile ad hoc networks to prevent government caused blackouts during future protests worldwide.
  • We Rebuild, a Europe-based group working for free speech and an open Internet is developing non-Internet modes of communication, including amateur, shortwave and pirate radio as well as a fax gateway, to assist protesters and humanitarian relief efforts. Information on these efforts can be found on their Telecomix news site.
  • Remaining Internet activity is certainly being monitored. The Tor network of anonymous, encrypted proxies has seen a huge increase in Egyptian traffic.

Efforts like these could be the tipping point for the uprisings. In 1989 Czech student protesters received a gift of then state of the art 2400 baud modems from a mysterious man who may have been from the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. Modems were illegal but the most Czech police didn’t even know what they were. The students set up BBS systems to coordinate actions throughout the country and successfully overthrew the Soviet communist backed dictatorship.

If you think the problems people in Egypt have could never happen here, you might want to think again. In the U.S. the “Internet kill switch” bill in Congress would allow interruption of Internet services in a “national cyberemergency.” Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced the bill in the Senate, has described the Internet as a “dangerous place” and promised the bill would protect against “cyber terrorists.”

Some of our current political leaders, hanging on every word of their consultants and pollsters, and terrified of harsh criticism, might consider hostile online commentary more of an “emergency” than something trivial like say, a collision with an asteroid.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Today that vigilance means learning to build and modify the technology that we use rather than being passive consumers of it.