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When Digital Shackles ClaspWhen Digital Shackles Clasp

When Digital Shackles Clasp

Since that date, we've seen that digital shackles don't stop actual people from gathering and protesting. It is possible, it would seem, for a government to decide to apply internet communication restrictions on a wide and sweeping scale (China being another well-known example). And if it is possible to disrupt communication this deeply, our assumed digital access cannot, from a citizenship perspective, be presumed safe from deep and sudden tampering.

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When Digital Shackles Clasp February 18, 2011  |  By Milton Friesen
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This Fast Company article and graphic of internet traffic in Egypt is sobering. Yochai Benkler (and others, of course) have been warning us for years now that the internet is no guarantee that information or communication is now free of pervasive controls. This is still early but you can see how the steep decline represents what is possible when a government decides to invoke the digital shackling of citizens(engineers are still puzzling out how the Egyptian government hit the kill switch).

Since that date, we've seen that digital shackles don't stop actual people from gathering and protesting. It is possible, it would seem, for a government to decide to apply internet communication restrictions on a wide and sweeping scale (China being another well-known example). And if it is possible to disrupt communication this deeply, our assumed digital access cannot, from a citizenship perspective, be presumed safe from deep and sudden tampering.

 

This stark image reminds us that the information and communication facilitated by the internet must not be presumed on. Like all other freedoms and responsibilities, regulation of it (or freedom from regulation) requires our attention and active participation in defining who can make decisions about what we access and who we talk to.

Our digital fingerprints as individuals can be used to give us targeted ads but they can also be used to control or identify us under certain conditions. Highly sophisticated users have always found ways to remain invisible. For average people, the data trails they leave can be useful for networking with each other but they can also be the means by which an angry government finds them before, during, or after the fact.

Amid all the discussions of what has happened and is happening in Egypt, the role of communications technology and social technology in particular, will undoubtedly be a sustained theme. Though digital communication may have assisted in the aggregation of interested people, there is less evidence that long-term social fabric will be woven from that action (current research on health indicates that despite digital connectedness in the US, the number of people without a significant confidant has increased three-fold in the last twenty years—citation).

One hopes that it can, that what underwrote the catalytic function of social media was actually a robust human relational capital. If that isn't the case, then organizers of the hoped-for new Egypt will have to face the very real difficulty of converting a revolution flash-mob into a sustained and robust movement that deepens its organization and coordination over time rather than suffering the digital entropy that so many social media driven flourishes seem to languish in. There are important lessons for all of us at all scales in these events.

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