How the U.S. can respond to Egypt's Internet blackout
Last fall I bookmarked Egyptian blogs to read. Thursday night, I revisited some of my favorites, only to find they had vanished. "Problem loading: The connection was reset," read one error message after another. And just like that, my access to Egypt became no better than any Egyptian's access to the rest of the world.
The Egyptian government cut off the country's Internet access late Thursday night ahead of what was expected to be the fourth and most intense day of protests against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, making it virtually impossible for the world to reach the nation of 80 million. Only a network used by the stock exchange and banks was allowed to stay live.
This is a very deep blow to the Egyptian people. There are more than 500 independent journalism publications in Egypt and more than 160,000 bloggers, and the nation boasts more opposition dailies than in any other Middle Eastern country.
Two-thirds of Egypt's population is under the age of 30, thousands of its citizens blog, and an estimated 3.4 million Egyptians are on Facebook. And according to OpenNet Initiative -- a site that tracks Internet freedom throughout the world -- more than 30 percent of Arabic-language blogs are Egyptian.
Now the question is whether -- after Egyptians have embraced America's democratic message by speaking out against their authoritarian government -- they will get help from the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that the U.S. would "support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly."
Also Wednesday, her senior technology adviser, Alec Ross, said in an interview that the U.S. was doing everything it could with new media tools to communicate Clinton's message.
On Twitter, for example, Ross said the State Department used Egyptian-adopted hashtags of #Jan25 to make sure its tweets would reach those in the region.
The State Department was focused on "making sure that the Internet remains open to communication, collaboration and commerce," Ross said.
But Egypt's Internet blackout on Thursday evening, of course, made that impossible.
In a press briefing shortly after noon on Friday, Clinton said, "We want to continue to partner with Egypt but what will happen in Egypt is up to the Egyptians."
If the U.S. hopes to gain the respect of the Egyptians marching through the streets of Cairo, it must pursue an explicit policy of encouraging the Egyptian government to turn its Internet back on. Egyptians appear unable to achieve this alone.
It's also now time to double up on efforts in America to encourage the democratic movement when it's online again. This means urging support among the American people for the Egyptian democratic movement.
One model might be the U.S. efforts after the earthquake in Haiti -- sending text messages to about a million Americans asking for financial donations. The campaign raised more than $10 million. It's that same sort of speedy, bold initiative that the United States should now launch if it hopes to keep the Egyptian people as an ally. If Egypt's political earthquake is not reason enough to apply the same sort of efforts on display after Haiti's earthquake, I'm not sure what is.
These measures have the risk of alienating the Mubarak regime -- that's true. But given the state of the country, that could be a gamble worth taking. The U.S. needs to continue to strengthen its explicit support not only for the right of Egyptians to protest freely, but for their actual message -- they want a democratic government.
Cutting off Egyptians' Internet access -- more than what Iran did during its protests in 2010 -- shows how far the Mubarak regime will go to quash freedom of expression. But the Internet should come back online in Egypt hopefully soon. And it'll be crucial for Egyptians -- particularly the college students at the center of the protests -- to see that the U.S. stood by them in this historic moment.
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