In the midst of worldwide change, there is a recurring theme: The role of the Internet.
What has happened lately?
- In Egypt, as protests began in late January, the government responded by shutting down the internet (through various means), hoping to quell the voice of the masses.
- Around the same time, a bill was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate which proposed giving the President what was labeled an internet “kill switch.” Perhaps an ill-timed move, comparisons were made almost immediately to Egypt. The bill has already been revised.
- As the so-called Jasmine Revolution expanded throughout the Middle East, more examples popped up of the Internet being used as a means of democratic communication. For example, Libyan revolutionaries used coded messages on a Muslim dating site to communicate, hoping to avoid the Libyan secret police.
- In response to the Jasmine Revolution and in an effort to squelch any revolutionary or anti-government speech, China chose to strengthen its censorship over the internet. Among other things, the website LinkedIn was shut down, and keywords such as “Tunisia”, “Egypt”, and “Jasmine Revolution” were blocked from various sites.
- Amidst all of this are two other key players: Wikileaks and Anonymous. Wikileaks, the well-known whistleblower organization, has been engaged in a battle over its internet presence. Meanwhile, Anonymous, a pro-Wikileaks group of “hacktivists”, has also become involved in protests throughout the world. In Egypt, it used fax lines to send Wikileak reports to the protesters. Recently, it has targeted the Koch brothers in an attempt to support the Wisconsin anti-union busting protests.
Where does this leave us? For one, there is the ongoing debate in the U.S. regarding the FCC’s proposed net neutrality laws, which have found an opponent in Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner. As mentioned above, although the “internet kill switch” bill has recently been renamed and amended to try and appease opponents, the debate goes on about the extent to which the internet should be in the hands of the government. On the opposite side of the debate, those who are concerned about internet security issues continue to argue the necessity of such a bill. Case in point: A proposed federal government shutdown on March 4th has been tied to concerns of a possible cyberwar emergency.
There is the sense of a looming threat to the democratic, open nature of the internet. On top of the issues of government and private censorship and control over the Internet, a recent controversy has been the use of “astroturfing,” a process designed to drown out dissenting opinions on open internet channels. Software creates internet personas which are then used to promote certain ideas an opinions, especially in places like forums, which are designed to provide access to the masses.
With threats both internal and external to the freedom and democracy of the internet, the ongoing discourse about the internet’s role in the US could not come at a more appropriate time.