Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

Protecting the Internet from Dictators: Technical and Policy Solutions to Ensure Online Freedoms

Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

Protecting the Internet from Dictators: Technical and Policy Solutions to Ensure Online Freedoms

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In this paper we explore the interaction between Internet communications, activists, and the state in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Uganda and northern Sudan. This paper addresses the following problem: Under what conditions are authoritarian regimes able to disrupt Internet traffic in situations of a popular uprising, and what can be done to prevent it? We illustrate that there are three critical variables in this interaction: redundancy in communications, distribution of power across organizations and individuals and geographic localities, and state regulation. We argue for a more resilient, redundant network. We propose policies that can be implemented in more open states with greater influence on the development of the network. We illustrate that the same investments that empower dissidents actually strengthen the Internet for commerce and government, and against unauthorized attacks.

Keywords: Internet traffic, Internet censorship, online freedom, network, Middle East.

Introduction

Internet censorship of political sites is the norm in many countries in the Middle East and Africa as well as large parts of Asia (York, 2011). Many countries- including Iran, and China-have behaved in a restrictive manner towards the Internet. In addition, some African countries, such as Ethiopia, and the Ivory Coast, filter websites. Yet, the drama of the Arab Spring focused the world's attention on the vulnerability of the Internet in countries governed by repressive regimes. Accordingly, we believe that this historical moment presents an opportunity to explore the following question: under what conditions are authoritarian regimes able to disrupt Internet traffic in situations of a popular uprising, and what can be done to prevent it?1

Egypt is not the only country in the Middle East or in Africa to cut its citizens offfrom Internet, although perhaps it presents one of the most dramatic recent examples. Shutting offaccess to the Internet is not a new tactic during civil unrest. According to the Open Net Initiative, similar blockades have been imposed by Burma, Nepal and China (ISOC, 2011; Johnson 2011; Richtel 2011)Still, the scope of efforts by Egypt, Libya and Syria to shut down the Internet and cellular telephony in an effort to suppress rebellion from 2011to 2013have been unprecedented. These shutdowns raise an important question for academics, engineers, and activists about what steps should be taken to prevent future episodes of Internet shutdowns.

The paper will begin by examining the case of Egypt. Egypt has spent the past two years in a revolutionary transition from an authoritarian state. On January 27th, 2011, the Egyptian government-which was ruled at the time by Hosni Mubarak-shocked the world when it cut offinternal access to the Internet and Internet connectivity from the outside into Egypt with the goal of repressing political activism. The Egyptian case highlighted some important technical considerations regarding ensuring, enabling or even expanding Internet access under official or unofficial attack by authoritarian regimes in crisis.

In addition to Egypt, this paper documents political controls and restrictions on the Internet in Syria, Uganda, and Libya experienced in the year of the Arab Spring 2011 and beyond. All of these countries are facing pressure from their citizens to remove dictators, dismantle semi-authoritarian governments, and to accelerate the democratization process. Citizens of all these nations all have experienced attempts by the ruling government to control, restrict and block access to the Internet in general, and Internet based social media applications such as Facebook, and Twitter in particular. Interestingly, these countries have had different outcomes with regard to activists' ability to use social media to organize. This paper contributes to the policy, political science, communications, and computer science literature by mapping the status of the Internet in these cases, and proposing innovative technical and policy solutions for protecting the Internet from dictators and repressive regimes throughout the world. …

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