networks are more powerful than nations
january 28, 2011
By Tom Wheeler
At the dawn of the Wireless Century, in 2001, the text message “Go 2 EDSA Wear blk” sparked demonstrations that brought done the Philippine government. Such text messages are now impossible in Egypt.
In 2009 the world watched as the “Twitter Revolution” took hold in Iran. The Egyptian government blocked Twitter as soon as the protests erupted.
Last week, for the first time in half a century, an Arab police state was overthrown in Tunisia. The organizing force for the revolution was Facebook. Cut off from the Internet, there is no Facebook in Egypt today.
To control people it is first necessary to control the flow of information among them. Penetrating that control is a key to dissent. During the Cold War fax machines and photocopiers were smuggled to Soviet dissidents to allow them to communicate. What seemed high-tech subversion in mid-20th Century appears quaint in today’s world of distributed digital networks and constant connectivity.
The actions of the Egyptian government, however, establish that network technology is not a panacea for progress. A new book, The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov challenges those who assert that the new digital and wireless networks represent nothing but upside for freedom and human rights. Such a belief is “cyber-utopianism,” he writes, and is based on “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.” Of course the new technologies aren’t all upside, and drinking the cyber Kool-Aid straight is certainly unwarranted. But history’s narrative is clear that the free flow of information can only be slowed down, not stopped.
The first mechanized information network – the printing press – gave the world the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Scientific Method. But it also propagated lies and was subject to content control by the church and governments of the 16th Century. When the Vicar of Croydon warned, “We must root out printing or printing will root us out,” he could have just as well been speaking in behalf of the Egyptian government’s reaction to digital and wireless networks.
The Vicar’s forces failed to suppress printing and his prediction proved prescient. The inherent freedom of information is enhanced by the multiplicity of its pathways to the people. Even today information is still getting out of Egypt. Certain DSL lines, kept up for governmental purposes, have reportedly been surreptitiously accessed. Dial up connections, while poor, are still operational. Creative dissidents have been able to access alternative pathways to report what is happening. Of course, the government’s repression means it is no longer possible to use Facebook or Twitter for organizing, but the genie was out of that bottle by the time the people took to the streets. Protest messages distributed widely before the crackdown alerted people to action and made it possible for them to organize. Putting the stopper back I the jug now is too late.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while visiting the CEO of MTV Europe, I was captivated by an inscribed photograph on his office wall of Soviet tank in front of a low, nondescript concrete building. The tank was guarding the TV station to deny freedom fighters the ability to communicate with their fellow countrymen. The revolutionaries, however, prevailed in taking back their country and the TV station. The inscription was from the republic’s new president, a play on MTV’s famous advertising campaign. The people had spoken, he wrote, that “I want my MTV!”
Controlling communication isn’t quite as easy as controlling the television station anymore. Networks empower the connected. The greater the network connectivity, the greater that empowerment. There was a revolution in Tunisia last week and an attempted revolution is underway in Egypt today. The underpinning revolution, however, is one we are all living – a connectivity revolution.
The networks that connect us also define us. One of those definitions is revolution. On a daily basis we live with how digital and wireless networks revolutionize commerce and culture. It takes events like those in Tunisia and Egypt to remind us that the new networks aren’t just changing how we order books and find friends. The digital revolution and wireless connectivity have opened an era when, as a state department official recently commented, networks have become more powerful than nations.
Tom Wheeler is Managing Director of Core Capital Partners, a venture capital firm specializing in early stage companies, including next generation wireless services. For almost a dozen years prior to joining Core Capital he was the president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.