On March 5, 2011, protesters stormed the Egyptian state security headquarters. In real time, activists shared their discoveries on Twitter as they moved through a building that had until recently been one of the Mubarak regime’s largest torture facilities.
Videos and photos uploaded to YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook showed a flurry of young men (and a few women) opening doors and cabinets, sifting through piles of shredded paper, pulling out stacks of files, and examining pieces of equipment, including implements of torture.
Some activists found their own files. They were full of wiretap transcripts and reams of printouts of intercepted emails and mobile messages. Clearly, the Egyptian government had sophisticated surveillance technology—purchased from several North American and European companies—at its disposal. It still does.
“If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet,” said Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive and a hero of the Egyptian revolution for his role in creating the Facebook group that played a key role in getting the first wave of protesters into Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Internet certainly did play a powerful role in bringing down a dictator—but it was leveraged by a committed community of activists who spent the better part of a decade building a movement. It is less clear how helpful the Internet will be when it comes to protecting the Egyptian people’s rights in the post-Mubarak era and in building a new democracy.
If the events of 2011 taught the world anything, it is that although the Internet empowers dissent and activism, it is not a magic tonic that automatically produces democracy.
Even if Egypt manages to build a stable democracy, its people face a problem not yet solved by any of the world’s democracies: How do we make sure that people with power over our digital lives will not abuse it? The challenge for Egypt’s activists—and for anybody who depends on the Internet anywhere—is that building democratic political institutions within their own country is not enough to constrain or prevent the abuse of digital power against them.
Decisions and business deals made by multinational companies, combined with the laws and policies of other governments and international institutions, also play a major role in shaping what Internet and cell phone users can and cannot do with technology, whether their privacy is protected on digital networks, how their online identities are shaped, and with whom their information is shared.
It is time to stop debating whether the Internet is an effective tool for political expression and instead to address the much more urgent question of how digital technology can be structured, governed, and used to maximize the good and minimize the evil.
Ironically, the world’s democracies have no consensus on this question. Americans disagree fiercely over what it means that law enforcement agencies and the National Security Agency can, in the name of fighting crime and terrorism, access our private emails much more easily than they can open our mail or search our physical file cabinets. A high-stakes political fight is now raging in Washington over whether censorship and surveillance are appropriate means to fight online piracy of movies and music. European societies are debating the effectiveness and desirability of censorship, which some politicians promote as a tool to combat a range of ills from child pornography to hate speech. In India—the world’s largest democracy—a government minister recently demanded that social networking companies like Facebook and Google must abide by government demands to delete anti-government material. The Indian government also successfully pressured RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, to allow government access to the devices’ messaging systems.
As the Internet grows ever more intertwined with our lives, citizens’ dependence on it for achieving and sustaining democracy also grows. In our dependence, we have a problem: We understand how power works in the physical world and how to constrain it through legal and political systems. We do not, however, have a clear understanding of how power works in the digital realm and how to constrain the abuse of it by governments or companies (or some insidious combination of the two) in confusing, difficult-to-track ways that cut across national borders, economies, and ideologies.
More than two centuries ago, American colonists demanded and fought for self-determination based on “consent of the governed”—an expectation now shared and demanded by people of all cultures and creeds around the world. Democratic institutions are based on a reality of human nature: that those with power, however benign or even noble their intentions, will do what they can to keep it. Digital power is every bit as likely to be abused as physical power, but is often more insidious because it is often wielded in the background until its results manifest themselves in the offline world.