International Protests

egypt_protest_350Toronto If there was ever a more dramatic case study of the political impact of protest on or off the grid of internet, telecommunications, and social networking, the world saw it on the streets of Egypt yesterday. It was as if there were a perfect laboratory experiment on what would happen if the only avenues for protest were “old school” removing the variable of communications.

The Times’ Matt Richel had a fascinating quote in the paper on the country’s success in shutting down the grid:

The shutdown may actually be creating more unrest, said Prof. Mohammed el-Nawawy of the communications department at Queens University of Charlotte. Professor el-Nawawy, a native of Egypt who has been studying its blogging culture, said he had been talking by land line to activists in the country who told him that people who might have otherwise expressed their frustration on blogs or Facebook were heading outside instead.

“The government has made a big mistake taking away the option at people’s fingertips,” he said. “They’re taking their frustration to the streets.” “

In a flip over of the old Yellow Pages / Bell ad, when your fingers can’t do the walking, then your feet has best be stepping. Clearly there were hundreds of thousands in the streets of Cairo turning the megacity into an urban war zone for streets and bridges.

The other amazing observation in the Richel article is the paradox that Egypt’s relatively liberal and open policy concerning telecommunications and the internet ironically made it more possible to achieve this kind of shutdown of the grid, precisely because the countries did not expect it. They were unprepared and did not build in back doors and workarounds in the event of suppression of service. Many less trusting systems in other countries where the worst is more often expected have created patchwork systems.

In a final note for those who rightly should be keeping score at home, props to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which once again is at the forefront of monitoring these intersections of politics and technology and was invaluable in monitoring traffic here in Egypt like they were earlier in looking at Google’s experience in China and Russian bot attacks. These folks are good and worth following, and I mean that literally since I track them on Twitter.

But in the meantime keep your running shoes handy and in good repair. The streets are on fire and we need to keep our feet in shape so the dogs can keep barking.