Revolution Watch: Tracking Digital Activism in Northern Africa and the Middle East
BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, January 27 2011
[Last updated: Friday, Jan. 28th, 9:18 p.m. EST]
With things happening remarkably quickly in northern Africa and the Middle East, with protests against governments happening in Tunis, Egypt, and now Yemen, we've decided to try a different (for us) way of covering the developments, with a liveblog of sorts that's tracking all the different news bits, images, videos, observations and more that connect in some way to the central idea that people are using digital tools and media in these historic resistance moments in ways well worth trying to understand. "Revolution Watch" here isn't meant in the political sense, necessarily, but in the new and newish way that citizens -- and, by all means, governments -- are making use of everything from Twitter to blogs to to email to YouTube to Flickr to digital cameras to broadband to mobile phones to shape the worlds in which they exist. So let's get started. We'll be updating the post in reverse chronological order, and all items are stamped with eastern U.S. time. We'd love to hear what you're seeing, hearing, and thinking, so by all means get in touch.
Friday, January 28th
[9:18 p.m. -- Housekeeping] The liveblog is being put to bed for the night, at least. We'll reassess the situation as things develop in and around northern Africa and the Middle East, and make a decision about where we go from here. Thanks, as always, for reading.
[9:07 p.m. -- Facebook, Bloggers, and Egypt Last Spring] The New Yorker just popped out an article from behind its firewall that's a useful look at both the complexities of the political landscape in Egypt and the role that the Internet was playing in that country before Wednesday of this week, when the street protests began. The article, by Joshua Hammer, ran on April 5th of this year, and focuses on the eventual presidential prospects of Gamal Mubarak and Mohammed ElBaradei after the Hosni Mubarak era ends. Hammer writes of a visiting Mohammed Kamal, a leader in the Mubaraks' N.D.P party who help Gamal organize a webcasted dialogue with college students:
I met Kamal, a slight, affable man, in his office at the university’s Economics and Political Science faculty, where he teaches. He said that the youth vote was essential. Sixteen million Egyptians now use the Internet, and the vast majority of them are under thirty-five. “We wanted something new, fresh, dedicated to engaging with Egyptian young people,” he told me. Kamal was planning another Webcast, and, he said, “we’ll probably have many more between now and Election Day.”
I asked Kamal about the harassment and arrests of critics who propagate their views on the Internet. In July, 2008, fourteen young activists who belonged to a Facebook group expressing solidarity with striking factory workers were jailed for two weeks. Kamal shrugged. “There might be some individual cases, but no government can crack down on the Internet,” he said. In the case of the Facebook activists, “the police said they went beyond just expressing a peaceful point of view. They participated in demonstrations, and might have provoked a riot.” When I asked him whom the police were arresting, he said, “I don’t know—you tell me.”
Hammer writes about Egypt's sometimes harsh response to critical bloggers:
Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which tracks arrests, told me, “Hundreds of bloggers are being summoned, kept for days, or weeks, or months, and then released.” An activist from North Sinai who, under the pen name Mosaad Abu Fajr, blogged about human-rights abuses against Bedouins has been held since December, 2007, under the Emergency Law. The best-known case may be that of Kareem Amer, the pseudonym of an expelled student from al-Azhar University, who blogged about violent clashes between Christians and Muslims (often a taboo subject), mockingly referred to President Mubarak as a deity, and criticized Muslim leaders for their obsequious support of him. He was arrested in 2006 and was sentenced to four years in prison. “It was meant as a message to other bloggers not to insult religion or insult the President,” Eid said.
And the piece wraps with an especially striking passage. Hammer interviews ElBaradei, who had until this week been living abroad while hoping of a future where he would help to lead Egypt. ElBaradei explains to Hammer one development that has him particular encouraged about his possible presidential prospects -- the seemingly spontaneous creation of a Facebook group, supporting him, that he had nothing to do with:
While in Cairo, ElBaradei established the National Front for Change, which, he said, “includes every part of the political spectrum, from the head of the Muslim Brotherhood faction in Parliament to Communists to Ayman Nour.” The group has launched a Web site which is collecting signatures and urging changes to the election law and the constitution. “If a huge number of people call for change, the government will have to react,” ElBaradei said. “If you want to avoid uprisings, or demonstrations, you need to respond to the people’s desperate need for change.”
He told me about one sign of popular desire: a Facebook page supporting his candidacy. “There are sixty thousand people in this Facebook group, and it’s growing,” he said. (As of last week, there were seventy-six thousand.) “They never even consulted me about establishing this Facebook thing. I had no clue.”
[8:08 p.m. -- U.S. Embassy Cairo Back Up] Katie Dowd of the U.S. State Department pointed out in a tweet this evening that the website for the U.S. Embassy Cairo was back up at egypt.usembassy.gov. We noted last night at about 11:30 p.m., when news of the Egyptian crackdown on the country's Internet connections first bubbled out, that the embassy was unreachable. The domain cairo.usembassy.gov that pops up the in Google searches for the embassy is, though, still down.
[7:15 p.m. -- Obama Speaks] A short while ago, President Obama delivered remarks on Egypt from the White House State Dining Room that lasted less than five minutes. Just thirty seconds in, after calling on Egyptian authories to resist engaging in violence, Obama began leading into a call for the Mubarak government to turn the Internet and cell phone networks in their country back on. Obama:
The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights, and the human states will stand up for them everywhere.
I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions they've taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service, and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.
That language, of the Internet access framed in the context of "rights," not unexpectedly echoes remarks that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during an afternoon press briefing.
"Supressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," said Obama later in his remarks.
Obama also made a pitch for, well, open and responsive government. "Around the world," said Obama, "governments have an obligation to respond to their citizens. That's true here in the United States. That's true in Asia. It is true in Europe. It is true in Africa. And it is certainly true in the Arab world, where a new generation of citizens has a right to be heard. When I was in Cairo, shortly after I was elected president, I said that all governments must 'maintain power through consent, not coercion.' That is the single standard by which the people of Egypt will achieve the future they deserve."
[4:37 p.m. -- Twitter Says "The Tweets Must Flow"] On Twitter's company blog, the California-based company's co-founder Biz Stone posts a note sketching out a company stand on free expression (they're pro), a position that "carries with it a mandate to protect our users' right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed." The full post:
Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.
The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief. On a practical level, we simply cannot review all one hundred million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day. From an ethical perspective, almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits.
At Twitter, we have identified our own responsibilities and limits. There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam. However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule—we strive not remove Tweets on the basis of their content. For more on what we allow and what we don't, please see this help page.
Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users' right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed. While we may need to release information as required by law, we try to notify Twitter users before handing over their information whenever we can so they have a fair chance to fight the request if they so choose.
We continue to work towards further transparency when we remove Tweets for legal reasons. We submit all copyright removal notices to @chillingeffects and they are now Tweeting them from @ChillFirehose. We will continue to increase our transparency in this area and encourage you to let us know if you think we have not met our aspirations with regard to your freedom of expression.
Discussion on topics from geopolitical events to wardrobe malfunctions make Twitter both important and fun. Providing the tools that foster these discussions and following the policies that keep them alive is meaningful work for us. If you are interested in this topic, we encourage you to follow the accounts collected @twitter/freedom-of-expression or better yet, come work with us.
[4:27 p.m. -- Historic? Yes. Without Precedent? No.]
Egyptians, we now all know, has been largely cut off from the Internet while that country engages in protests against the Mubarak government. The chart to the right has been floating around the Internet over the last day or so, pointing out clearly the extent to which Internet traffic to and from Egypt has dropped off since the government, it seems, ordered a shutdown of most Internet providers. (This chart is actually an update to an earlier version, showing that not much has changed today; both charts were put together by the Massachusetts based Arbor Networks.)
But Masashi Crete-Nishihata and Jillian York of the OpenNet Initiative, a project that tracks the state of the open Internet around the globe, report that while the Egyptian Internet blackout is dramatic, concerning, and in its own way historic, it's not entirely something the world has never seen before:
Shutting down Internet connectivity in reaction to sensitive political events is an extreme example of just-in-time blocking — a phenomenon in which access to information is denied during important political moments when the content may have the greatest potential impact such as elections, protests, or anniversaries of social unrest.
What is happening in Egypt is not without precedent: two other states have implemented national level Internet shutdowns in reaction to political events. In February 2005 Nepal severed all international Internet connections in the country following a declaration of martial law by the King. On September 29, 2007 during the Saffron Revolution the Burmese government completely shut down Internet connectivity in the country in reaction to streams of images and videos documenting the violent government crackdown on the protests uploaded by citizens. Prior to shutting down the Internet, the Burmese government had — not unlike the recent actions by the Egyptian government — increased the number of sites they were blocking, extending the ban to popular social media like YouTube and Blogspot, as well as international news sites. In the case of Burma the apparent objective of the shutdown was to restrict information from flowing out of the country to wider international audiences. What differentiates Egypt from both previous cases is that the government does not have control of the Internet from a central location; rather, ISPs were ordered by the government to shut down service.
At the risk of reading too much into their post, the subtext seems to be that while what's happening in Egypt is certainly attention-grabbing, the restrictions on the Internet we see in other times and other place are deserving of at least a fraction of that same attention.
[3:54 p.m. -- Gibbs: Internet Connectivity is "Basic Individual Right"]
In a White House press conference just now, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Vodafone Egypt, the company that completely cut off Egyptians' access of mobile communications via their network yesterday after, says the company, being directed to by the Egyptian government.
Gibbs wouldn't comment on Vodafone's specific actions, saying he'd have to "go to the NSC," or National Security Council, on the particulars of that situation. But he did comment on how the Obama administration is looking at connections to the Internet these days:
It is our strong belief that inside of the framework of basic individual rights are the rights of those to have access to the Internet and to sites for open communications and social networking.
In a strict reading, the response from Gibbs -- who was being extraordinarily careful throughout the briefing -- is a fairly powerful statement of the importance of the right to digital connection provided by the Internet, framing it language generally used to refer to human rights.
[3:02 p.m. -- Capturing Kasr Al Nil] There's a striking photograph being passed around Twitter this afternoon that shows Egyptian protesters on Cairo's Kasr Al Nil Bridge, which connects with Tahrir Square, being hosed by some unseen source while kneeling down in prayer. Have a look:
The photo which, echos some of the "hosing" visual imagery we talked about down blog, was posted on a Twitter account under the name Olly Wainwright. Attached to the photo was the simple note, "from my friend in Cairo." Since going up on the Twitter-inspired photo-sharing site TwitPic about four hours ago, it's been viewed more than 70,000 times.
Some of those views, perhaps, have come by way of the New Yorker, where what seems to be the independently-shot photo has been called into service to flesh out a moment detailed by writer Jenna Krajeski, who is reporting from on the ground in Cairo. The photo provides the backstory for a subsequent stretch of time that Krajeski describes in depth:
Kasr Al Nil bridge, which connects downtown’s Tahrir Square with Gezirah’s Opera Square in Cairo, was the setting for the climax of today’s enormous anti-government protests, with hordes of police officers trying to prevent tens of thousands of protesters from crossing into downtown. On Friday afternoon, the protesters, braving tear gas and singing the Egyptian National Anthem, made it about a third of the way across before they were pushed back to Opera Square, where they seemed to disperse. After that, the bridge emptied. Police vans parked along the side, and some officers sat, exhausted, on the curb, their shields lying on the ground and visors pushed up over their black helmets. A few officers ran on the bridge toward Tahrir Square, calling over and over again for an ambulance. The pavement was slick and wet—water cannons had been used against the crowd. Black smoke rose up from behind the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, and just north, on the 6th of October Bridge, something was on fire. The loud, constant crack of tear-gas grenades being fired in Opera Square could be heard in the hotel across the water, where I waited with my colleagues from Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Arabic and English newspaper. Two army trucks, stuffed with soldiers, rolled over the bridge to Tahrir. Kasr Al Nil, at that point, belonged to the police.
You can read the rest of Krajeski's first-hand report from Cairo here. In it, she conveys what she heard from one contingent of Egyptians on why they're resisting their current situation, and what might be next: "There was no work and nothing to eat, Mubarak had to go, their hope for the future was freedom and, maybe, ElBaradei."
[2:03 p.m. -- Anonymous "Will Take Sides"] On the news website of Anonymous, the global digital collective that has been in the news most recently for bringing down government websites in Tunisia, a press release has been posted in response to the events in Egypt. (That's a tortured way of not saying "an official Anonymous press release," given that the site, though moderated, is open to postings from anyone who might like to add one.) It comes in the form of a letter, and it's addressed to "governments of the world":
Your support of the popular uprisings in Arabic countries has been ambiguous, if not absent altogether. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exemplified the indecisiveness of the international community as she claimed that the US "could not take sides". Neutrality amounts to complicity as totalitarian regimes are showing their contempt for the citizens' right to protest. Mubarak's regime attempted to disconnect the Egyptian people from the rest of the world by cutting off internet communication, while his foot soldiers shot civilians and assaulted domestic and international journalists.
It is up to you to work for the people and support the universal right to freedom of speech. It is your prerogative to oppose violent regimes, regardless of your political affiliation. The geopolitical concerns for 'stability' have for far too long served as an excuse to ignore the violations of human rights.
People throughout the Arab world have been victimized and held hostage by
their regimes. Now the people are standing up. The current situation within Egypt presents the leadership of the world with a unique opportunity to acknowledge and respect the people's ambition to control its own future. This is also the time when the question will finally be answered, once and for all: are Western governments truly "of, by, and for the people" or are they merely puppet facades, designed to ensure the continued domination by those in power?
Anonymous has made its choice. We will take sides. We will support people who strive for freedom of speech, assembly and communication - the civil rights essential for the people to forge their own futures.
(Housekeeping note: This item was reposted from earlier today after an unfortunate overwriting error occurred.)
[1:32 a.m. -- Inside the Oval Office] The Obama White House posts to its Flickr feed a Pete Souza photo showing President Obama discussing the situation in Egypt during his 9:30 a.m. Presidential Daily Briefing today:
The White House regularly puts a rush on getting its in-house photos posted on its Flickr feed when it especially wants to capture a moment or help shape the public perception of the White House's role in events. And there's no doubt that Egypt's "Day of Anger" is a significant moment for the Obama administration. One wonders, though, if this scene, of scores of men in suits looking quite relaxed (except, perhaps, the National Security Council's Ben Rhodes, bottom right) hits exactly the note that the White House might have hoped it to.
[1:15 a.m. -- Routing Egypt]
RIPE NCC, a membership-based organization that monitors and supports the Internet's infrastructure, has found occasion in Egypt to test out its new RIPEstate portal, designed to help analyze "interesting incidents in Internet operations." Here's what it found in Egypt:
This page shows a regularly updated overview of the routing activity observed for prefixes allocated to Egyptian organisations.
The graph shows Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) updates which occur when routers announce changes in routing. The top half shows announcements and changes, while the bottom half shows withdrawals which occur when routers inform each other that a range of addresses is no longer reachable.
Prior to 22:00 on 27th January, the graph displays the normal background noise of BGP updates for Egyptian prefixes - hovering around 200-400 announcements per minute.
Clearly visible after 22:00 is the huge spike in updates and withdrawals when many Egyptian prefixes were withdrawn from the Internet.
(Via Kombiz Lavasany)
[12:41 a.m. -- Clinton Condemns Communications Cut-Off]
Al Jazeera just broke into their on-going Cairo coverage with remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Egypt situation. In them, Clinton -- annunciating to an almost painful extent -- expressed support for the Egyptian people while cautioning against violent protests. Alas, Clinton's remarks aren't yet up on the State Department website. But Clinton was recorded making these remarks about the historic Internet cut-off we've seen occur in Egypt:
"We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications."
The United States, as you've no doubt heard by now, counts Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as an ally in the Middle East, and we've seen the Obama administration attempting to finesse support for the anti-repression protests that have erupted in Cairo, Suez, and elsewhere over the last three days with that political relationship. One thing that the Obama administration can cling to is the rights of the Egyptian people to organize and express themselves online, and in a way, the Mubarak government's drastic cut-off gave U.S. officials, from their perspective, a useful instance of offensive behavior to focus on.
To wit, the first mention of Egypt made by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on his Twitter feed makes a point of bringing up the blocking of the Internet in Egypt, including restrictions on Twitter and Facebook:
[11:47 a.m. -- Facebook as Egypt's Parallel State] There were, perhaps, signs:
A recent surge of social activism among Egyptians has alerted the government to a networking force that has thus far eluded their control: Facebook. Since the 6 April general strike, rumor has it that the social networking website has been front and center on the Egyptian authorities' radar as they mull over the possibility of a block. ...
The social networking powerhouse has become a venue for bloggers to express themselves, organize around political and social causes, and circulate information that would be considered taboo in other media. The general strike that unfolded in Egypt on April 6 was advertised on a Facebook group, which attracted more than 70,000 members and played a significant role in recruiting supporters and increasing turnout for the demonstrations. ...
"Facebook came as a surprise to everyone," [Wael Nawara, an avid blogger and vice chairman of Egypt's El Ghad opposition party,] explained. "When the government realized that tens of thousands of people and activists can be rallied in a few days time using viral communication techniques available on Facebook, they started to monitor the social network more closely. The word is that there is even a special division called the State Security Investigation Police for Facebook."
From a story from the Arab Press Network, dated August 29th, 2008.
In that more than two-year-old piece, the blogger and political figure Nawara describes Facebook's role in Egypt as that of a "parallel state" -- "whenever a formal economic, social, cultural or legal subsystem fails to deliver the basic needs of the people" the people demonstrate "remarkable genius in devising parallel sub-systems to fill that gap, hole or deficit."
[11:13 a.m. -- State's Spokesperson Tweets]
[10:58 a.m. -- Syria Cracks Down on Facebook] The Syrian government has tightened its Internet restrictions in light of what's been going on in Tunisia, Reuters is reporting:
Syrian authorities have banned programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat from cellphones, tightening already severe restrictions on the Internet in the wake of the unrest in Tunisia, users said on Wednesday.
Nimbuzz and eBuddy, two programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat and other messaging programmes through a single interface, no longer work in Syria, thety [sic] said.
"You cannot have an open economy and a closed Internet," said one Syrian businessman quoted in the Reuters piece. "They're undermining their own economic policy."
[10:31 a.m. -- The Idea that is the Internet] Here's a quick observation that came just now from me watching a Tunisian organizer being interviewed on Al Jazeera English's remarkably good livestream -- though it's a thought that's really been percolating while watching the coverage of Egypt that's been happening on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and just about everywhere else online over the last few days.
On Al Jazeera, this Tunisian organizer, a heavyset man, was describing to a reporter how he and other Tunisians had been going onto Facebook to share with protestors in Egypt who were getting ready for today's demonstrations in Cairo how they should go about coping with the tear gas that police were expected to spread. It was operational knowledge drawn from their recent street protests in Tunisia. The Tunisian organizer on Al Jazeera, whose name I unfortunately wasn't able to get, was quite proud of being able to do that, of being capable of reaching out on Facebook across national boundaries and about 1,300 miles to share tactical insight as a way of showing solidarity with like-minded people who were similarly eager to force political change in their country.
But the real sense that you could get in watching the interview with the Tunisian organizers is that there was a certain emotional or even spiritual value in this connectivity, whether it's through Facebook or Twitter or mobile phones or what have you, that's actually somewhat separate and apart from whatever tactical or informational benefit protestors in Tunisia, or Egypt, or even Yemen get from the Internet. Let's call it, maybe, "the idea that is the Internet," (inspired, of course, by "The Idea that is America," the title of a book by the American foreign policy world's Anne-Marie Slaughter, which was itself inspired by a line in a letter sent by Army Captain Ian Fishback to Senator John McCain about his witnessing the abuses of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.) It's those tactical and informational benefits of connected media that will get analyzed the most in the context of what's happening in the Middle East. Did any Egyptian protestor actually read what those Tunisian organizers were telling them? Maybe, or maybe not. But just because the answer might be "no" doesn't mean that the social media part of this story ends there.
The global shock and horror that greeted the Mubarak government's order last night to shut down Internet and mobile connections isn't, one imagines, what we'd see if they had closed the country's gas stations or even ordered all of Cairo's major roads shut down for the duration of the unrest. But it becomes almost a personal affront to anyone who uses and really likes the Internet to think that a leader of a nation would have the gall to simply shut down the Internet in his country. The idea of an entire nation of nearly 80 million people suddenly being dropped from the global network has a particularly horrifying character to it. It's the very idea of heightened connectivity that carries power, not necessarily the particulars of what people do with it in times of crisis. Simply put, it's the idea that is the Internet that political leaders like Mubarak will find themselves wrestling with in the future, not simply the tweeting or wall posting itself.
[9:26 a.m. -- On the Streets of Cairo] Video's now pouring out of Cairo capturing clashes between protestors and police in the streets of that city; here's a clip from RussiaToday:
Al Jazeera English has a livestream going on their website of their reported coverage of what's happening in Egypt.
[9:15 a.m. -- "We Are Obliged to Comply"] Vodafone Egypt, one of Egypt's main cell phone providers, has a brief press update on why they cut off mobile connectivity in that country in the run-up to today's protests:
All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it. The Egyptian authorities will be clarifying the situation in due course.
[9:05 a.m. -- "When Egypt Turned Off the Internet"] Al Jazeera reports on how the entire country of Egypt largely disappeared from the Internet map last night, an event with few precedents. What put Egypt in such a precarious position is, they report, not only a government seemingly willing to take a drastic step but that they there connections to the global Internet were so consolidated:
Egypt has apparently done what many technologists thought was unthinkable for any country with a major internet economy: It unplugged itself entirely from the internet to try and silence dissent.
Experts say it is unlikely that what has happened in Egypt could happen in the United States because the US has numerous internet providers and ways of connecting to the internet. Co-ordinating a simultaneous shutdown would be a massive undertaking.
"It can't happen here," said Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer and a co-founder of Renesys, a network security firm in Manchester, New Hampshire, that studies internet disruptions.
"How many people would you have to call to shut down the US internet? Hundreds, thousands maybe? We have enough internet here that we can have our own internet. If you cut it off, that leads to a philosophical question: Who got cut off from the internet, us or the rest of the world?"
Thursday, January 27th
[11:31 p.m. -- Housekeeping] With that, the liveblog is going to bed for the night.
[11:25 p.m. -- Egypt and the Internet II] Renesys, a global "Internet intelligence" company, has details on their blog on the extent to which Egypt, and its "modern economy and 80,000,000 people," has been cut off from the Internet:
At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.
The post was later updated to note that one route, Noor Group, was still up and running.
On and admittedly American-centric note, it's a bit eerie to try to pull up the website of the U.S. Embassy Cairo and get only an error message.
[10:18 p.m. -- Egypt and the Internet] Various sources are reporting that a considerable percentage of Egypt's Internet connectivity has been cut off, and the Huffington Post has a good round-up of the reports. Ben Wedeman, a CNN International correspondent based in Cairo tweeted (from a "UK blackberry," it seems), "I suspect the internet cutoff is just a fraction of what the government has in store for Friday."
[9:45 p.m. -- A Publishing Debate] A fascinating debate has popped up on and around the Atlantic, where technology channel editor Alexis Madrigal published excerpts of a translated copy of an "action plan" floating around in perpetration for tomorrow's planned demonstrations in Cairo.
Some of commentators have taken issue with the choice to post the excerpts on the high-profile site. In the post's comments, the Berkman Center's Jillian York argued that posting the document needn't have happened at this moment. "What a poor decision," wrote York, "Why ignore the wishes of the protestors for more pageviews?" (The document is marked with a request that those with the document not share it on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere online, saying "all of these are monitored.") "You could have waited on this." Alaa Abd El Fattah, a South Africa-based Egyptian who has been actively tweeting about the events, asked Madrigal to take it down. And the translator of the document, a former military linguist, according to Madrigal, who connected up with the Atlantic writer over Twitter, tweeted, "I had no part in the decision to release my translations this early." (The translator's Twitter account is irretrievable at the moment.)
Madrigal, for his part, argued back that the posted excerpts had little tactical value. Responding to a critic on Twitter who pointed out the document's warning against sharing online, wrote Madrigal, "I'm a journalist, not a protester." Added Matt Novak in Madrigal's comments, "To take issue with the publishing of excerpts...from this document is to love transparency and a free press only when it suits you."
[8:13 p.m. -- Images of Egypt] Two particularly powerful pieces of visual imagery have come out of the protests in Egypt thus far, with one getting what seems like more attention than the other. The first is this video, filmed, according to FRANCE 24, on Kasr e-Aini, a street off of central Cairo's Tahrir Square which has been the site of the city's largest protests, and which has since its creation on January 25th been "spreading like wildfire on the Egyptian Web." One version of the clip has been viewed nearly 900,000 times on YouTube:
What's emerged as the iconic moment comes at about a minute and twenty seconds in when a man, dressed in black and white, walks calmly but with seeming purpose and plants himself in front of what looks to be a water-spewing military truck. For several long seconds, he refuses to let it move, and the trucks water spout waves about impotently. It's a moment, as many others have noted, that brings to mind the "tank man" incident captured on film by professional photographers and spread around the globe back in 1989 when a Chinese man put his body in front of a line of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
If you haven't seen the Tiananmen video for a while, or never at all, it's worth a viewing, if only to see the moment when the never conclusively identified man actually attempts to get in to the first tank:
Beyond the tank man comparison, though, the image of Egyptian authorities turning blasted water on their own people brings to mind another iconic image, those captured in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A., in 1963, by Charles Moore and spread through the pages of Life magazine, under the banner of "They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out":
Which brings us to a second piece of compelling imagery to come out of the Egypt situation thus far. And though it's less obviously human-centered than any of the images above, there's certainly a sly humor conveyed. It comes from the Twitter account of @Anon_VV, associated with the global digital collective known as Anonymous. The joke: it's a tweet that's been so redacted (by implication, by the Egyptian government) that it conveys the idea that everything's hunky-dory in Egypt:
That tweet has been retweeted hundreds upon hundreds of times. How'd they do it? It turns out that Twitter accepts ASCII code. In fact, you can cut and paste █ to make your own "redacted" tweets.
[7:06 p.m. -- Tweeting in Arabic from Foggy Bottom]
The State Department's Alec Ross, an Obama campaign vet and now a high-profile senior advisor on innovation to Secretary Hillary Clinton who is closely associated with the department's "21st Century Statecraft" push has, over the last few hours, been tweeting out notes in Arabic. What's he saying? According to Google Translate's somewhat choppy translation, at least, they're gentle statements of support for the Egyptian people that, at least on their surface, do little to cause offense to the Mubarak government:
The United States wants to see reform in Egypt, and elsewhere, in order to create political opportunities and greater social and economic, and commensurate with the aspirations of the people.
We call upon the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests, and call to refrain from interfering in the means of social communication.
The United States supports the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including freedom of opinion and assembly.
[6:38 p.m. -- Views of Cairo's Tahrir Square]
YouTube has curated highly-watched and otherwise notable videos captured on cell phones and other video cameras during the protests and gatherings in Cairo's Tahrir Square on the first day of the protests in Egypt. In the one above, a large crowd of protesters chants in unison.
[6:38 p.m. -- Protections of the Online Kind] The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Eva Galperin takes note of what seems to be the Mubarak government's shutting off of online news publications, and adds:
The other dangerous aspect of the Mubarak government’s shameful campaign of silence and censorship has been the arrest and detention of bloggers, journalists, and activists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that the Egyptian government has shut down at least two independent news websites: Al-Dustour and El-Badil. Police beat Al-Jazeeracorrespondent Mustafa Kafifi and Guardian reporter Jack Shenker, who posted an audio recording of the incident. Policemen have attacked and arrested cameramen covering the protests and onlookers recording the protests with cell phones.
Egypt is no stranger to the arrest of bloggers. Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for “disparaging religion” and “defaming the president” in 2007. In 2009, web forum founder Karim Al-Bukheiri was arrested, tortured, and subject to constant government surveillance. Just last year, the Islamic Human Rights Foundation reported that Egyptian Security Forces arrested “at least 29 activists, including bloggers, lawyers, and human rights activists.” The concern here is clear—if the street protests subside, the Mubarak government could initiate a campaign of retaliation and oppression, arresting and harassing the very bloggers and activists who have been chronicling the protests online. Some countries have gone even further. In Iran two opposition activists were hanged this week for taking pictures and video of the Green Revolution protests and posting them online.
And Galperin has advice for those folks in Egypt who are trying to use the Internet to organize, publicize, and perpetuate actions against the government:
Given the potential dangers, it is absolutely critical that Egyptian protesters take precautions when communicating online. To reiterate, social networking tools have given activists a powerful voice, which can be heard well beyond Egypt, but activists should also remember that the Egyptian government could use these same tools to identify and retaliate against them. We recommend that political activists look at our Surveillance Self Defense International report for information on how to use technology defensively to better protect their anonymity and freedom of expression in Egypt and other authoritarian regimes.
(Thanks to Alex Howard for the tip.)
[6:29 p.m. -- The Internet in Cairo] Issandr El Amrani reports on the Arabist that friends in Cairo are telling him that their Internet connections (on "TEDATA, Vodafone, and Egynet") have cut out altogether -- which is remarkable for both (a) the possibility that it's true and (b) the fact that that blogged note has already been retweeted hundreds of times.
[3:51 p.m. -- Enter the Brotherhood] Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has thus far not gotten involved in the street protests in Cairo, says now that they're more or less all in for the protests scheduled for tomorrow. According to the Egyptian daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm, an MB spokesperson "asserted that blocking social networks such as Twitter reflects the government’s weakness."
With the Muslim Brotherhood getting into the mix, it puts the U.S. State Department in a a potentially complex position. It's easy to read too much into this, and at its core State's "21st Century Statecraft" approach when it comes to foreign affairs comes down to support for free expression. But on record and in the public mind, the U.S. State Department has gone a long way in the last few years and particularly in the last few days towards solidifying their role as defenders of the free and open Internet, and tools that let people organize in ways that might naturally lead to changes in government. But here we have the possibility that a tech-enhanced uprising leads to a fresh new government that they wouldn't exactly love to see in power.
[3:22 p.m. -- Who Are Egypt's Revolutionaries?] On PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff interviewed Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University who just got back from three months spent researching in Egypt. Woodruff asked Masoud about the make-up of the protests there:
JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, this description of the people who are protesting as middle-class, educated, Internet-savvy, does that ring true to you, someone who's spent time in Egypt?
TAREK MASOUD: Absolutely.
I mean, if you look at one of the movements that's at the forefront of this group, it's the April 6 youth movement, which is -- April 6 is the date of a workers strike in 2008 in a Nile Delta town.
But these youth are very Internet-savvy. And, you know, there's a huge digital divide in Egypt. So, the people who are using the Internet tend to be more educated, more middle-class. And we see them using this to coordinate their activities.
So, I think that's -- that's a pretty interesting and extraordinary thing. But I also think that these protests are kind of cross-class. I mean, they're bringing in not just middle-class people but also people from Egypt's vast population of poor and disenfranchised.
Woodruff wrapped up the discussion by asking Masoud about what U.S. Secretary of State Clinton said in a briefing yesterday about the situation in Egypt, wherein she said that the United States calls "on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence":
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, what do you see as the implications for the United States? What did you make of Secretary Clinton's comment today?
TAREK MASOUD: I thought Secretary Clinton's comment was -- was great, except for the part where she urged both sides to show restraint, drawing this kind of moral equivalence between people who are protesting for democracy. They're not protesting for Islamic law or any of the other things that we're afraid of in the Middle East. They're protesting for democracy.
And to draw a kind of moral equivalence between those people and between a regime that's cracking down on them quite ruthlessly is problematic. And it just reinforces this notion that folks have in the Middle East that we're not really interested in democracy. We're interested in stability.
And I think best way for us in the United States to kind of kill that perception is for us to come out very clearly and say that we support the right of these people to protest, and we believe that their call for democracy is a legitimate call, and we support it for them, as we do for all peoples around the world.
(Thanks goes to John Wonderlich for the tip.)
[3:00 p.m.-- Obama on Social Network Blocking] Just now, YouTube's Steve Grove put a question to President Obama during an interview based on questions generated from the public via YouTube's question platform. What did Obama make of reports that Egypt was blocking social networks?
"Egypt's been an ally of ours on a lot of crucial issues," started Obama. He went on to say that he's encouraged the country's leaders to make democratic advances. "It's very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate greivances," he said, citing his State of the Union address' sections on the topic, adding his appreciate of the importance of "people being able to use social networks or any other mechanisms -- and that is no less true in the Arab world than it is in the United States."
[2:38 p.m. -- The Internet in Yemen] The momentum behind the protests seems to have hopped from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, but it's an open question the extent to which the Internet helped grease that movement. From the OpenNet Initiative comes 2007 numbers that show a low level of Internet penetration in Yemen:
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that only 1.4 percent of Yemen’s population uses the Internet and that the PC penetration rate is less than 3 percent.
Worth noting, though, is that those numbers are for the country as a whole, while today's protests are happening in Sana'a, Yemen's largest city.
[2:12 p.m. -- "Thanks to Twitter"] The Philadelphia Inquirer's John Timpane talks to do regional experts on the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali:
"In the Arab world, this has never happened before," says John Entelis, director of Middle Eastern studies at Fordham University. "A dictator has been deposed by the people. That is an extraordinary first step, even if nothing else comes of it. And believe me, the whole Arab world is watching."
Mustapha Tlili, director of New York University's Center for Dialogues and himself Tunisian, says: "For the first time, we became a world moral community, thanks to Twitter."
Tlili says dictators in the region's other countries can block social media, but not forever, "so they must deal with the way social media make it easy to flout authority, organize opposition, and appeal to the moral conscience of the world."
Tlili shares a second-hand tidbit:
"At one point, young people had transported a man to hospital, and doctors were rushing to save his life," says Tlili. "But people were there with their iPhones and were shouting, 'Wait! We want to share the picture before you clean him up!'"
[1:56 p.m. -- Who's Blocking What? And How Do We Know?] Let's pause for a moment on the topic of governments blocking websites and services. We keep hearing reports that the Egyptian government has blocked-unblocked-blocked online services and mobile networks, particularly Twitter. How accurate are those notices, and how much are they assumptions based on the difficulties people might be experiencing getting on Twitter, or Facebook, or their mobile network? Government generally don't make a point of sending out press releases telling just which websites and web services they're censoring. And an Egyptian government spokesperson told Reuters that, from where she's standing, Egypt would never do such a thing.
"The government would not resort to such methods," Magdy Rady said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. State Department, meanwhile, seem to be working from the knowledge that, indeed, Cairo is standing in between its citizens and what they can see and do online. Clinton made a point of opening up her remarks during a briefing with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh yesterday with not only a mention of the Egyptian protests, but what the Egyptian government is doing to block social media sites:
"...Before I talk about our meeting today, I want to say a word about the protests taking place in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. As we monitor this situation carefully, we call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.
Where's State getting all that knowledge? There are hints that it's coming directly from the social media companies involved. Over on Twitter Inc.'s brand-new press account, @TwitterGlobalPR, the Twitterer behind the account nearly asserted yesterday that, indeed, the Egyptian government is cutting off its people from Twitter. Here's the relevant tweet:
Egypt continues to block Twitter & has greatly diminished traffic. However, some users are using apps/proxies to successfully tweet.
Beyond that, we saw when it came to Tunisia that the U.S. State Department was looking (or, at least, saying that they were looking) at what was happening between Facebook and Tunis from the privileged perspective of Facebook headquarters. Reuters had a report of an anonymous "senior State Department official" saying that the Tunisian ambassador to Washington was hauled in for a chat after the U.S. State Department learned from Facebook that, it seems, the Tunisia government was indeed stealing the passwords of Tunisian Facebook users:
"We've received some information from Facebook that helped us understand what was happening. This is a case of hacking into private accounts, stealing passwords and being able effectively to curb individuals' access to social media," the official said.
"In a variety of ways there's activities on a number of sides, but clearly the government has taken some specific actions that are of concern to us."
[1:07 p.m. -- Group Demands Web Companies Make Their Policies Plain] Access, the digital rights group leading the "Demand HTTPS" campaign to encourage the world's most popular websites to offer secure connections to their users, has launched a petition asking "online service providers" to adopt terms of service and other policies so that there might be an understanding, ahead of time, about what people are expecting online companies like Facebook and Twitter to do when push comes to shove. The petition, under the banner, "Demand Freedom of Speech for All":
Websites, blogs, and videos remain available online at the discretion of the internet companies that host them. But recent events in Egypt and Tunisia -- and Amazon’s takedown of Wikileaks -- have shown that online information isn’t necessarily safe on either side of the firewall.
Now, as people across the Middle East call for their voices to be heard, we must demand freedom of speech online for all -- regardless of political interference or technical restrictions. Some of the major platforms are starting to hear our calls (including Facebook, Google and Twitter). Please sign this petitiondemanding that the platforms which host much of the world’s information, stand firm against the regimes who are repressing their citizens, by establishing robust policies that respect human rights and protecting the security of those who use their services.
Yesterday, you might remember, we talked to Access's Brett Solomon about Facebook's recent quiet notice that it's going to start offering people the option to use HTTPS for their whole Facebook experience. Solomon supported the move, but said that it only goes so far. HTTPS should be the default, said Solomon, especially given that the people who are under threat and thus might need HTTPS the most are the ones least likely to be bothering with mucking around with their Facebook account settings.
Access, for the record, counts figures like Eli Pariser, Joe Rospars, Chris Hughes, Larry Lessig, Ethan Zuckerman, Reihan Salam, Peter Gabriel, and, full disclosure, PdF's Andrew Rasiej as members of its advisory board.
[12:48 p.m. -- Crowdtracking Blackouts] Is Twitter blocked in Egypt? Is Facebook? With mixed reports coming out of that country (and Internet "blocking" not always being a black and white issue), the folks at Herdict, set up to do this sort of work, are looking for help settling on some sort of truth. Tweeted @Herdict about a half hour ago, "Help us determine what's being blocked in#Egypt: Report instances of filtering to http://herdict.org #Jan25."
[12:27 p.m. -- Game Over] Al Jazeera captures what might be a bit of gamer culture-turned-political that popped up in Tunis on January 14th and Cairo yesterday: protestors holding signs reading, simply, "Game Over."
[12:18 p.m. -- It's the Young Ones] The New York Times' David D. Kirkpatrick and Michael Slackman report that it's young people who are leading the protest and protest calls in Egypt, and that the lack of easily identifiable leaders making it harder for the police to figure out how to quell the resistance:
Their early efforts to call a general strike were a bust. But over time their leaderless online network and others that sprang up around it — like the networks that helped propel the Tunisian revolution — were uniquely difficult for the Egyptian security police to pinpoint or wipe out. It was an online rallying cry for a show of opposition to tyranny, corruption and torture that brought so many to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, unexpectedly vaulting the online youth movement to the forefront as the most effective independent political force in Egypt.
“It would be criminal for any political party to claim credit for the mini-Intifada we had yesterday,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger and activist.
One person of a certain age smart enough to not try to co-opt the uprising? Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has set himself up as an alternative to the leadership of Hosni Mubarak while living outside the country:
“It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” [said ElBaradei from Vienna], shortly before rushing home to Cairo to join the revolt.