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In Egypt, should Internet access be an inalienable right?

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As masses in the Arab world take to the streets demonstrating against politicians in power, much of the fuel for these meet-ups can be attributed to organizing on social media outlets. Experts say other nations may be next.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 8:02 PM

Riots and unrest in Egypt have been ongoing all week, but the Internet only seemed to take notice when it affected the Internet. On Friday, news reports revealed that the government had shut down Internet access to its 80 million citizens, also blocking text messaging and mobile services. Access to the outside world was gone, as was the ability to organize protests from within.

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Tech blog Mashable.com quickly put up a graphic to help readers visualize the blockage. Online vigilante group Anonymous - most recently in the news for its WikiLeaks hacktivism - threatened to attack the government's portals, anonymously.

No Internet? It's a thought so large and abstract as to be nearly unfathomable (How exactly do you "shut down" the Internet? With a giant pair of scissors - snip, snip, snip? Blogs quickly began exploring that question, too.)

Online communities had similar reactions of revulsion in 2007 when the government of Burma (also known as Myanmar) closed off Internet access - images of protesting monks had begun to leak to the outside world; it didn't look good. Following the Iranian presidential election in 2009, Twitterers worldwide changed their locations to "Tehran" after news broke that the government was cracking down on Iranian Twitter accounts.

The most recent events in Egypt caused some to ponder a question that, on its face, sounds ludicrous: Has society reached the point at which Internet access is a basic human right? Is this public outcry just 21st-century indignation - one born of a world where "social networking" is nearly always something that happens in front of a screen?

Only in a land of First World concerns could the lack of Internet access be considered a violation of basic rights. They have no bread? Let them eat Google.

But it's not the loss of Flickr pages and Tumblogs and Sad Keanus that constitutes human rights abuse. Not really. "It's the idea of freedom of expression and information that's a human right," says Arvind Ganesan, who has researched Internet censorship as the director of business and human rights at the Human Rights Watch. It's right there in Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

The chilling aspect of an Internet clampdown is the assumption that lies behind it: If you will not let your people tweet, what else will you not let them do?

"Over the past 10 years, we've changed our media environment to strongly emphasize on-the-ground, eyewitness voices," says Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher with Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "It feels very strange not to be able to check a broadcast report for 'authentic' voices from on the ground."

The modern Internet has made us untrustworthy of sources that are too "official." Shutting it down causes one to recall nearly extinct Iron Curtain oppression: the misinformation, the not-knowing, letters being secreted across borders at risk of imprisonment. This outrage over the Egyptians losing their Internet access isn't a new thing at all. Or, as says Chris Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "The point is not that the Internet has become sacred. The point is that human rights have always been sacred."

Some futurists have recently begun to suggest that the Internet and its assorted devices are not merely tools for human use, but rather the future of human evolution. They are the caches we use - via Facebook photos, blog entries, saved Google chats - to store memories and information - they are the appendages that humans will use to expand our brains. If you subscribe to this rather extreme philosophy, then denial of Internet is not only denial of communication but a denial of modern selfhood.

Then again, humans adapt.

"It really scared people this morning when their phones and Internet stopped working," writes Human Rights Watch's emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, via his BlackBerry. He was in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and had only sporadic messaging capabilities, with no Internet or phone service. "They were suddenly cut off from their friends, and the rest of the world." But, Bouckaert writes, ultimately the government's obvious fear of dissent may have emboldened its citizens. The people "also realized how afraid the regime must have been to shut down everything. In the end, it didn't stop them from protesting."


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