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Cyberspace and expression

Cyberspace and expression

In November 2005, Tunisia hosted the second phase of the only World Summit on the Information Society held till date. The meet allowed the conglomeration of all those who run, manage and participate in cyberspace. The Tunis phase of the summit was to decide on the future of managing the Internet, based on the work done around issues that had been raised in the first phase in Geneva in 2003.

For many observers, particularly in Western democracies, this embracement of the Internet in autocratic Tunisia came as a surprise. But just five years later, Tunisia, with its 3.6 million Internet users— roughly about 34% of the total population—has seen the 23-year-old regime of Ben Ali routed, with the Internet facilitating large-scale protest movements after the self-immolation of a street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi. The success of the Tunisian revolt in turn sparked the uprising in Egypt, where the role of the social media has been much more amplified. The five million Facebook users in Egypt, out of its total Internet population of 17 million, played a key role in the revolt, and the social networking media worked as a forum for organizing and also as a news source. With a 30-year-old ruling dictator forced out in 18 days, movements for democracy are spreading to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Yemen are already witnessing strong protests. And a gruesome conflict is on in Libya between Moammar Gadhafi’s forces and anti-government rebels backed by Western powers.

Events in Tunisia and Egypt have prompted many remarks on the Internet becoming the marquee public space for the 21st century. Social networking media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and the constantly increasing proliferation of blogging have broadened the platform for popular expression. In a rapidly changing world, the Internet has allowed expression to transcend geographical constraints.

Governments have also realized the potential of the medium. Despite a long history of many nations trying to throttle Internet content and even restrict connectivity, more and more outpourings of public feelings are finding their way to the Web, facilitated by ever- evolving technology. Proxy servers are now able to relay even censored content to large audiences in countries such as China and Iran, which simply ban all social networking websites. The Egyptian government disconnected the Internet and mobile telephony three days after the protests started, but many were able to browse content through the Alkasir censorship circumventing tool.

The curb on Internet content also paradoxically prompted more physical presence at protest centres—such as Tahrir Square—finally forcing the government to restore connectivity. This was followed by many pro-Mubarak postings on both Facebook and Twitter, ostensibly prompted by the regime from mostly newly registered accounts. So, the impact of the medium has been realized at both ends. Separately, China started blocking all search results related to Egypt at the beginning of the uprising so that fresh protests did not erupt there in conjunction with the ban on social networking websites.

The question is whether the world has reached a stage where the virtual space is going to be a dominant factor in determining real events. The Tunisian and Egyptian experience indicates that it will, but in the absence of a global understanding and treaty among nations on the principles that should determine expression, there could be different points of view. A few months back, a 20-nation committee submitted a report to the United Nations secretary general on the role of information communication technology on international security. The committee also touched upon the extent of content in the cyberspace. However, no action or strategy has come out of this report. Countries still remain divided on the issue.

Recently, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced the creation of a state department office for cyber issues and the US determination to push for a freer Internet. She posed the three challenges that confront cyberspace today—first, achieving both liberty and security; second, protecting both transparency and confidentiality; and third, protecting free expression while fostering tolerance and civility. On all the three counts, the outcome is evolving according to national and societal situations.

With the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes falling prey to the online conglomeration and more nations witnessing unrest, there will be increased noise around the extent of freedom in the cyberspace. Social networking websites are already becoming more and more popular. How impartial they can remain needs to be seen. The memory of the spat between China and Google is still fresh, despite Google initially agreeing to filter content, thus allowing it to set up shop in that country.

At the same time, as more and more people come to use the Internet, they will find the forum to express. With evolving technology, it will become increasingly difficult to keep out all undesirable content. A regime of global Internet governance has to spring up to foster availability, confidentiality and security of the medium. Who calls the shots here remains to be seen.

Subimal Bhattacharjee, heads a multinational corporation in India and writes on issues of technology and security

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