One reason why Europe has not spoken out against Egypt's Internet switch-off might be the fact that many Western governments are seeking increased control over the net themselves.
By Marietje Schaake, 31.1.2011, www.hurriyetdailynews.com In 2009 I gave a talk in Cairo called “Technology and Democracy: the Genie is out of the Bottle,” which highlighted opportunities and threats to freedom as a result of the developments in information and communication technologies. Although this seemed prophetic looking back, no one expected the massive uprisings we are witnessing in Cairo now. The main factors in these popular protests are people, youth, who no longer accept being marginalized and repressed by a corrupt elite. Unemployment and the limiting of opportunities and rights have led to a pressure cooker. New technologies have provided both opportunities and threats to people. An intense debate is taking place about the importance of social media and the Internet in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. And although it is first and foremost courageous people at the heart of the demonstrations, the importance of free communication and access to information is a crucial ingredient in distinguishing open and closed societies. The regime in Tunisia was known as among the most sophisticated users of surveillance, and filtering and censoring software. Active hacking by government into citizens’ email and Facebook accounts was also reported in Tunisia. The government's switching off Internet and mobile traffic all together last Friday in Egypt was unprecedented. On Sunday, the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, whose reporting became the main source of information on the Egyptian demonstrations, saw its license revoked. Access to information and communication technologies are important tools for the press to be able to report, for people to organize demonstrations and to document human rights violations. But people are quick to find alternatives. In Turkey, where thousands of websites are still forbidden, officials have almost proudly told reporters that citizens are smart enough to find ways around the bans. In Egypt, officials are trying to prevent citizens from smartly circumventing the bans – a real cat and mouse game is taking place between citizens and governments that seek to limit communications and access to information. Solidarity among a globally connected youth generation allowing them to attain more freedom is significant. Tips and tricks were shared from around the world, as well as concrete infrastructure to help Egyptians stay connected as the government switched off Internet and mobile phone services. These bottom-up solutions however, do not let governments off the hook. I have urged Catherine Ashton to explicitly condemn the switch-off, as I believe the Egyptian case will set a precedent for other regimes who will seek to kill the flow of bytes. One reason why Europe has not spoken out against Egypt's switch-off might be the fact that many Western governments are seeking increased control over the Internet themselves. In 2010, United States Senator Lieberman introduced a bill dubbed the 'Kill Switch bill', which would grant the president emergency powers over the Internet. But what constitutes an emergency? In Europe talks about how to end child pornography, terrorism and hate speech are merged under the heading of “undesirable content.” Although illegal acts need to be stopped, the questions remain as to whether taking down websites is a legitimate means of doing so and whether fundamental rights are not compromised. Debates on who might be responsible for monitoring and cutting off users, Internet service providers or even a judge are heated. Besides having an impact on European Union citizens, the outcome of these debates will have consequences for the credibility with which Europe can speak out in support of citizens in countries like Egypt when the government switches off the Internet. My political party has strived to adopt Internet access as a fundamental right. The EU, as a community of values, should stand for the rights of its citizens and play an active role in the world in defending human rights. The genie of censorship, surveillance and filtering technologies should be put back into the bottle in order to do so.