Think Local: Digital Divide and Censorship
“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
This famous quote draws its confidence from a rather idealist view on a technique that is employed for the Internet to work the way we know it and that is called packet switching: Data packets are relayed – on theoretically arbitrary routes – towards a destination that is determined only by a unique address in a network of nodes – whose number is theoretically only limited by the number of possible addresses – where the blackout of a node or a connector can be compensated instantaneously by alternative routes that circumvent the defective part. In this structure, nodes can operate relatively autonomously and “improvise” with the address of the incoming packets and sufficient knowledge about their neighbors. No wonder that this form of idealized network with its magic ability to “self-repair” its data streams is often associated with the notion of a military communication network that can comparably well continue operation when being under attack.
What is true for the level of the communication protocol and for data packets whizzing through abstract wires often looks quite different on a deeper level when it comes to physical connections. Although technical equipment may be owned by individuals or at least be distributed to many players with distinct interests, the nationwide infrastructure is expensive and relies much on the investments of powerful corporations and the policies of national governments.
Mark Pesce refers to Gilmore’s Law when declaring: “Kill one part of the Internet, and another part will smoothly fill the gap.” Information, so the argument, has the inherent capacity to preserve itself. The author mentions the Great Firewall of China as failed attempt to censor information and describes wireless mesh networks as possibility to relay data independently from existing networks that are controlled by authorities.
On the other hand, the Digital Divide might force us to differentiate this optimistic prediction. Digital Divide does not only mean that in some parts of the world individuals are less connected, but also tells us about the weakness of the national parts of Internet that are controlled by the ruling regime.
We have seen an extreme example in Burma during the “Saffron Revolution”. The OpenNet Initiative has analyzed the regime-made blackout in their report Pulling the Plug: A Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burma. Now, recently, something very similar has happened in Egypt. The analysis How Egypt did (and your government could) shut down the Internet draws the connection from Egypt to technically developed countries where people trust the Net is indestructible.
The situations in Egypt and Burma have been compared and incited soul-searching mostly on the Burmese side. This doesn’t surprise us since protests in Burma have been unsuccessful and digital media could be leveraged only to an extent permitted by the regime. “But probably the biggest difference between Egypt and Burma is the role of the military in the midst of a civilian uprising,” observes Yeni in his commentary and points out that freedom in the virtual sphere still depends on political hard facts in the real world – the world where bullets can kill.
Matt Richtel writes in the New York Times: “The [Egyptian] government has made a big mistake taking away the option at people’s fingertips. They’re taking their frustration to the streets.” Can we therefore conclude that online media are absorbing and neutralizing initiative and hence delaying change, rather than promoting it? Regime change, we have learned, was eventually effected offline on the streets, and tolerated by the national army.
The lessons learned, however, needn’t force us to go back to pre-digital ages. There are some reasons to think about improving and employing alternative solutions like Packet Radio, as suggested in the article Communicate if Your Government Shuts Off Your Internet, which is obviously tailor-made for a scenario in the Western civilization where presumably also its authors stem from. The Digital Divide is not only about the availability and affordability of technical equipment, but also about the IT-literacy of the population. Here, too, is a starting point to prepare the population for key moments. But the engagement of citizens will eventually depend not less on the question what personal risks individuals have to take by owning or operating an illegal network, and how easily they can be revealed.
I wonder if among the things that Burmese activists can do now is also to establish connections to their Egyptian counterparts. Usually they seem not to miss out any opportunity to split into factions, rather than uniting for one common goal. Maybe it is time to search allies among peoples with a similar fate instead of turning to powerful Western governments, and thus repeating post-colonial patterns.