Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Wave of Revolutions

I, along with the rest of the world, have been watching the wave of revolutions that is propagating through the Arab world, and I have a couple of thoughts I thought were worth putting here.

First, the Egyptian government's decision to shut down the internet serves as an important lesson in the importance of information infrastructure to democratic rule. The so-called "internet kill switch" legislation that popped up last year was once again raised in Congress only days before a repressive regime used precisely the same tactic in an attempt to undermine a peaceful democratic revolution. The potential for abuse of such a power is simply so high it outweighs the potential benefits to national security in the event of an emergency. The bill has been quietly buried since then, but when it pops up again, remember the name Hosni Mubarak.

Second, the influence of the contemporary media environment has been the single most fascinating thread in this cascade. I'm not referring to the characterization of the Egyptian demonstrations as a "twitter revolution," but rather to the capacity of the global information network to influence geographically distant populations. We can see this playing out in two very significant ways here.

Most obviously, the notion of revolution was sparked by Tunisia, caught on in Egypt, and then swung back through Libya. There are rumblings about a renewed push for democracy by the Green movement in Iran (whose seemingly imminent victory was quashed by fraudulent elections and military force back in 2009), and even the Saudis are beginning to stir. The next several months will be tumultuous.

Much more interestingly, to my mind, is the effect of immediate global access to events as they unfold. My local NPR affiliate carried BBC's "Have Your Say" for several days during the Egyptian revolution, complete with a live audio feed from Tahrir Square and phone calls from protesters on the ground. Americans are actually asking their television providers for Al Jazeera news thanks to their reporting.

And today, President Obama reminded Muammar Gaddafi that the world is watching when he goes on state television and rants about the protesters being on drugs. This isn't entirely new, either. Several philanthropists have teamed with the U.N. and Google to purchase time on monitoring satellites to capture images of atrocities committed by dictators.

In short, democracy thrives on information, and the increasing pervasiveness of media is dramatically changing global politics for the better by exposing the acts of repressive regimes to universal scrutiny. It will be interesting to watch these trends develop.

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