Internet censorship a serious offense in any nation

By Luke Wilusz

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime shut down Internet access, mobile phone service and BlackBerry Messenger activity across the country on Jan. 27, in an attempt to stifle communications between anti-government protesters and activists in the country. If the millions of rioters who took to the streets of Egypt in the following days are any indication, that plan didn’t work as well as Mubarak might have expected.

If anything, the government’s attempt to silence the dissenters served as a catalyst to fuel their rage and push the nation to a breaking point. Nothing seems to encourage protest more than an attempt to silence it.

The Egyptian government crossed a serious line when it chose to deny its citizens Internet access. While Web access is far from a basic human right, the ability to speak one’s mind and communicate with others is an essential part of any society. No government should have the power to deprive its citizens of the right to communicate with one another, discuss ideas, assemble or otherwise express their views. Maybe it’s just my American sensibilities and affinity for the First Amendment, but I firmly believe every single human being is entitled to these rights.

In addition to being an affront to civil liberties and the fundamental principles of free speech, the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down the Internet was a logistically poor move. Protesters weren’t slowed down by the lack of local Internet access. Many Egyptians found ways to circumvent the Internet blackout through the use of dial-up modems that could connect them to other countries’ servers.

Furthermore, protesters and activists among the Egyptian people weren’t the only ones in the country relying on the Internet. In this day and age, any country’s government and economic infrastructures are heavily reliant on electronic networks, so Mubarak’s attempt to quell dissent also crippled parts of his country.

As of Feb. 2, Internet access in Egypt has been restored, and the government is not better off for shutting it down in the first place. The riots remain ongoing, and the violence in the street continues to escalate. With such a complex political situation in Egypt, it would be foolish to say shutting down the Internet caused all the social unrest. Realistically speaking, the unrest was already brewing, and it was probably only a matter of time before the Egyptian people took action. The Internet blackout certainly didn’t move the social situation toward a more peaceful resolution, though.

However, Egypt isn’t the only nation facing questions of government regulation of the Internet in times of crisis. The Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. Senate proposed a bill that would grant the U.S. president authority to shut down certain parts of the Internet to protect against cyber threats.

The bill wouldn’t give the president the power to shut down the nation’s entire Internet infrastructure as Mubarak did. It would instead allow him to close off access to “our most critical infrastructure—the networks and assets most essential to the functioning of society and the economy—to ensure they are protected from destruction,” according to a statement from Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Several organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Library Association, have voiced concerns that this authority could be abused to censor the Internet.

While this power may indeed prove useful in the event of a cyber attack, legislators need to be extremely careful when writing and approving this proposed legislation. If this Internet-killing power is not properly regulated and overseen, it could take the U.S. down a slippery slope from national security precaution to Internet censorship, and that’s a situation that should be avoided at all costs.