Controlling the online world

11 Mar 2011
By Kris

News came from Britain’s police inspection body last week that police forces must adapt to protestors who use Twitter and Facebook to organise demonstrations at short notice.

The report came a week after the Egyptian government chose to shut down the internet for 7 days in a bid to prevent protesters from organising themselves on Twitter. Though Google weighed in to help circumvent the block, the vast majority of the country was totally cut off from all sources of independent information in less than an hour – at the mere whim of a desperate political leader. As Iain posted last week, Twitter also helped the protestors’ cause with their speak2tweet technology.

A Novel Strategy

Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, has allegedly been watching the situation carefully and come up with a different strategy: to embrace social media. The dictator has requested that more of the country’s 44 million citizens be connected to the internet so that he can use Facebook to overcome his political adversaries. On the same day, Syrian president, Bashir al-Assad, lifted a country-wide ban on YouTube and and Facebook.

Clearly, there are discussions going on all over the Middle East as governments ask how best to use the internet and social media to gain political advantage over opponents – be they rival political parties or the citizens themselves. But the open internet dilemma isn’t only confined to Middle Eastern countries; it’s also widely discussed in Eastern Asian politics.

Online Blocking From East to West

North Korea’s decision is, and always has been, the polar opposite of Sudan’s; they’ve had a country-wide block on the internet in place before they even fully knew what the internet was. Similarly, China closely monitors all internet activity with their controversial Great Firewall of China which not only blocks obscene or criminal sites, but also anything that the government considers politically objectionable or merely inconvenient.

Internet users in the West often look to citizens of these countries sympathetically – but we would be well advised to keep an eye on what is happening in our own back yard.

Internet freedom in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is comparably much better than many dictatorial countries, but there have been signs that governments are keen not only to be more aware of what is happening on the internet, but to also have more control over it.

In 2008, Australia came under fire by filtering content with their Chinese-imitation black-list which not only blocks sites advocating terrorism, but also material about suicide, racism, cartoons and at one stage, the Wikileaks website. Advocates of free speech panned the black-list.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government implemented usage-based billing in the country; the decision was so controversial that it is being reviewed. If it does get passed, Canadian users will be charged high fees for exceeding meagre bandwidth limits. Though not an outright ban, the policy would limit many users to how much they can use the internet (based on what they can afford) – and greatly limit how they use services like Skype, Netflix and YouTube.

The United States has discussed net neutrality for several years despite huge opposition from user groups. UK users also face a similar battle against net neutrality which, if endorsed, would allow ISPs to regulate which content we have access to – and how much we pay for it.

The British Response

In the mean time, the British police advisors are undoubtedly watching closely to see how Libyan leader Gadhafi’s stance against Facebook is working. Libya was disconnected from the internet only days before protestors started to take control of several army bases. They’ve probably noted with some mirth that his former advisors suggested he resign – via Twitter. (Perhaps the reason that they are former advisors.)

No single political strategy is the right one, and different countries obviously require different internet strategies in order to be effective and maintain their power. But one thing seems certain: blocking the internet is rarely a way to maintain long-term power and content supporters. The only exception seems to be North Korea – but even there lies murmurings of a quiet uprising inspired by the Middle East, being helped along in part by their southern neighbours.

For now, the Metropolitan Police seems content with the state of peaceful protests in London. Their comment: “Met Police happy with current protest”.

However, should that sentiment ever take a turn, you will certainly not read about it on Twitter or Facebook. As the new saying goes, “The revolution will not be Tweeted.”

I think it might be speak2tweeted, though.

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