Last year I attended the Internet Governance Forum in Sharm-el Sheik, Egypt. It was my first high-level international meeting, and I was shocked at what I perceived to be the lip service paid to openness and transparency, while all around was the experience of a repressive regime – armed police, walled compounds topped with barbed wire, security theatre at every door. A controversy about a poster mentioning Chinese internet censorship.
One of my other memories was of the Egyptian First Lady Mrs Murabak usurping part of the IGF program to advance a personal interest in child safety that some delegates saw as a way of justifying limiting internet access in that country.
I came away from the meeting feeling rather depressed about the usefulness of these meetings for negotiating a global platform for free and open communication.
It seems my feelings were not unfounded. As more and more Egyptians are joining demonstrations against Mr Murabak, Egypt has left the internet: as James Cowie notes, “the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet.”
The protests will continue, of course. But without as much freedom of speech for those in the streets, and without as much information for them about what the rest of the world sees.
What this also tells us is that the internet transformation into centralized infrastructure is complete. It is now possible for a government to close down the internet for an entire country. The promise of democratic distributed networks, remnants of which were being quibbled over at the IGF meeting in Sharm, has now been largely replaced by the reality of national-level routing by national ISPs. The myth of the internet as the de facto platform for citizen communication has been usurped by the reality of commercial platforms and ISPs subject to local laws and thus to local strictures.
Maybe it’s time now to think again about autonomous infrastructure. Since the 1950s and 1960s radio hams maintained a parallel network of radio communications in many countries, using frequency bands set aside for amateur use. Community Wi-Fi networks have developed peer-to-peer networking systems that allow computers to communicate with each other over the air, and these ad-hoc networks are increasingly possible on mobile devices. From past to future, all of these possibilities provide alternative means of distributing information among a public in times of crisis.
This is not to say that having a ham radio network or developing mobile handsets so they can more easily form an ad-hoc network will in itself compensate for the removal of an entire country from the world’s communication network. Removing Egypt from the internet is a clear effort by the government to remove international oversight from today’s activities, as well as cutting off its citizens from each other. It is only to underline that there are other means for publics to be formed, as as the internet comes increasingly to resemble a mass media behemoth, we might want to return our attention to them.