A Blunt Instrument
Overnight there were many, widespread reports that Egypt has severed most of it’s ties to the Internet (WSJ, CNN, Telegraph) and has also disabled SMS (text) services. What is not clear at this time is how stable the internal communications are at this time – mobile, landline, or net.
While isolating populations and breaking internal communications is probably step 4 in the “Totalitarian Handbook: How to Crush the Opposition”, this has not been tried at this scale before. My guess is that it will have precisely the opposite effect as intended, mostly because the action itself is far more disruptive than anyone realizes at this time – disruptive to the economy, to the normal interactions of the residents, for that matter, even disruptive to the actions of the government itself.
I’ll leave the considered analysis of the sociological, political, economic, and yes religious dynamics mostly to others who are undoubtedly far more qualified to think this one through … but I do want to begin to consider what impact cutting off an entire country from the net might have on that country.
In graduate school I remember attending a seminar in which the speaker (whose name eludes me right now), who was working for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco at the time, told us how the US had actually implemented the freeze of Iranian funds during the then-recent hostage crisis.
The decision to freeze the funds was made in late 1979, so it turns out that after receiving a middle-of-the-night call to freeze all Iranian funds (about $8B dollars), he simply drove down to the SF Fed, walked over to the physical server that was used as a gateway for all large funds transfers (a PDP-11/70, if I remember correctly), and used a bit of tape to stick a handwritten note on the console saying something like “don’t release any Iranian funds”.
Apparently he used pretty decent tape, because that money stayed most-definitely out of Iranian hands.
While this arguably aggravated daily life in Iran, it generally functioned as intended – it caused pressure on the target country as a whole, yet did not directly impact most people within that country, at least not in a clearly discernible manner. This was one nation to another, and when considered in that context was actually a fairly targeted, precise instrument.
By all accounts Egypt is in real turmoil right now, to say the least. While it may have seemed to make sense to the present government to cut off the Internet and the ability of people to text each other, I think that the impact of the unavoidable other stuff that will happen as a result of this action will end up making the situation far worse.
Bad enough, I think, to perhaps be the exact action that pushes the population over the edge and topples this government.
Here are a few of the unintended / at least unavoidable reasons why (in no particular order):
- External Economic Disruption. Everything from the banks to the stock markets to all sorts of companies and individuals need to reliably communicate with their counterparts around the world to function. Breaking those will most likely hurt the Egyptian economy in entirely hard to anticipate, though likely significant, ways.
- Internal Economic Disruption. It’s probably pretty safe to assume that much of the internal Egyptian economy will grind to a halt. Yes part of that is because of the riots themselves, but a much larger part of that will be because businesses can’t communicate with their customers or each other. Pretty simple, really.
- Partial Isolation Externally. Cutting off much of the external net access will certainly create a sense of isolation; however, there will be some flow that continues. That will spread old-school, imperfectly and rather slow by comparison, yet it will spread.
- Government Disruption. This is pretty mundane but probably non-trivial – the actions of the government across a large country will probably be impeded by the lack of the very tools that are targeted here. While there’s probably official communications channels that remain functioning, much of the day to day, informal actions probably are done the way people conduct most of their lives – and that is broken now.
Too Late, We Know How to Talk With Each Other
Perhaps if Egyptians had never become accustomed to facebook, youtube, twitter, email and every other aspect of the relatively open, functional net culture / economy (or at least one that is perceived to be fairly functional – China is a net that is probably far more controlled than we all think, though done in a much more precise, subtle manner), then these actions would have much less impact.
In other words, I doubt if North Korea cutting off international internet access (such as it is) would have much of an impact on that peculiar, sad country.
But Egyptians have, like most of the world, come to expect and rely upon pervasive, fairly reliable, net services for many aspects of daily life.
Take them away and people will notice – the economy suffers, society decays, people’s lives diminish. While technology is not causing the problems that Egypt is struggling with, disrupting that technology will certainly exacerbate those problems.
Let us keep the people of Egypt in our thoughts and prayers as they move through this time of extreme uncertainty and sorrow.