This piece is cross-posted from the Opinion Page of the Toronto Star which was kind enough to publish it this morning.
Over the weekend something profound happened. The Egyptian government, confronted with growing public unrest, attempted to disconnect itself. It shut down its cellular and telephone networks and unplugged from the Internet.
It was a startling recognition of this single most powerful force driving change in our world: connectivity. Our world is increasingly divided between the connected and the disconnected, between open and closed. This could be the dominant struggle of the 21st century and it forces us to face important questions about our principles and the world we want to live in.
Why does connectivity matter? Because it allows for free association and self-expression, both of which can allow powerful narratives to emerge in a society beyond the control of any elite.
In Egypt, the protests do not appear driven by some organized cabal. The Muslim Brotherhood — so long held up as the dangerous alternative to the regime — was caught flat-footed by the protests. The National Coalition for Change, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, seems to have emerged as the protesters’ leader, not their instigator.
Instead, Egypt may simply have reached a tipping point. Its citizens, having witnessed the events in Tunisia, came to realize they were no longer atomized and uncoordinated in the face of a police state. They could self-organize, connect with one another, share stories and videos, organize meetings and protests. In short, they could tell their own narratives to one another, outside the government’s control.
These stories can be powerful.
In Egypt, a video of an unknown protester being shot and carried away has generated a significant viewership. In Iran, the video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying from a gunshot wound transformed her into a symbol. In Tunisia, videos of protestors being shot also helped mobilize the public.
Indeed, as the family of Mohamed Bouazizi — the man who by setting himself on fire out of frustration with local authorities, triggering the Tunisian protests — noted to an Al Jazeera reporter, people are protesting with “a rock in one hand, a cellphone in the other.”
This is what makes movements like this so hard to fight. There is no opposition group to blame, no subversive leadership to decapitate, no central broadcast authority to shut down. The only way to stop the protests is to eliminate the participants’ capacity to self-organize. During the Green Revolution in Iran, that meant shutting down some key websites; in Egypt, it appears to mean shutting down all communication.
Of course, this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Too much of the Egyptian economy depends on people being able to connect. The network that makes possible a modern economy also makes possible a popular uprising.
At some point Egypt will have to decide: disconnect forever like North Korea, or reconnect and confront the reality of the connected world.
For those of us who believe in freedom, individuality, self-expression and democracy, connectivity is among our most powerful tools because it makes possible alternative narratives.
From East Germany to the Philippines, Iran to Tunisia, connectivity has played a key role in helping people organize against governments that would deny them their rights. It’s a tool democracies have often used, from broadcasts like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to the U.S. government’s request that Twitter not conduct a planned upgrade to its website that would have disrupted its service during the recent Iranian Green Revolution.
But if we believe in openness, we must accept its full consequences. Our own governments have a desire to disconnect us from one another when they deem the information to be too dangerous.
Today most U.S. government departments, and some Canadian ministries, still deny their employees access to WikiLeak documents, disconnecting them from information that is widely available to the general public.
More darkly, the government pressured companies such as Amazon and Paypal to not offer their services to WikiLeaks — much like the Iranian government tried to disrupt Twitter’s service and the Tunisian government attempted to hijack Facebook’s. Nor is connectivity a panacea. In Iran, the regime uses photos and videos from social networks and websites to track down protestors. Connectivity does not guarantee freedom; it is simply a necessary ingredient.
The events in Egypt are a testament to the opportunity of the times we live in. Connectivity is changing our world, making us more powerful individually and collectively. But ultimately, if we wish to champion freedom and openness abroad — to serve as the best possible example for countries like Egypt — we must be prepared to do so at home.
David Eaves is a Vancouver-based public policy entrepreneur and adviser on open government and open data. He blogs at eaves.ca