Since the so-called Iranian Twitter Revolution in 2009 there has been intense debate about the role of social networking tools and new media in organising and fomenting organised political revolt against authoritarian regimes. There has been less public debate, though it’s arguably more important, about how internet freedom balances with cybersecurity.
In the early days of the Green Movement protests, cyber utopians claimed that the Iranian regime was on its last legs in the wake of protests organised and broadcast online. Twitter was heralded as a tool so nimble and ubiquitous that it would rouse the silent majority and lift the mantle of fear of regime authorities. But just weeks after the protests began, the Iranian authorities initiated a violent crackdown and used the same social networking tools to crowdsource regime supporters in helping them identify and arrest protest participants. Supporters of the Green Movement also were victim to the most modern of ills—they spent so much time posting online that they had little time left for real world action.
Fast forward two years to January, 2011 and we witness the beginnings of the Arab Spring uprisings. Social networking tools featured prominently in first spreading news about a random small town protest in the backwater town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia that ended up galvanising mass protests against multiple autocracies throughout the Arab world. In Egypt, one Facebook page, 'We are All Khaled Said,' run by an anonymous administrator (now known as Wael Ghonim and named later as a victim of police brutality), was a central hub for organising protests in Tahrir Square and beyond. At the height of the protests, Egyptian authorities feared the use of the social networking platforms so much that they literally shut down the internet. But by that point it was too late. Weeks later the Mubarak regime was toppled after over 30 years of repressive, corrupt rule, thanks largely to a youth-led protest movement that made clever use of new media and social networking.
But the successful outcomes of the Arab Spring did little to settle the debate. In fact they only served to intensify it. Did the protests of the Arab Spring succeed because they learned the lessons from Iran’s ill-fated Green Movement? Did they become more adept at using social networking? Or were there additional and more powerful dynamics at play? After all, the protests in Egypt intensified after the internet was shut down and mobile phone traffic was slowed to a crawl. It was the anti-Qadafi militias in Libya who finally forced the Colonel out using the traditional method of the gun. In Yemen, it was the result of protracted negotiations between rival political groups; President Saleh managed to hang on despite months of street protests.
For authoritarian governments seeking to protect themselves from uprisings and protests it doesn’t much matter. For them, it has become a case of internet freedom versus cybersecurity. Authoritarian governments like China, Russia and Iran are seeking to frame and define cybersecurity in a way that allows them to limit and monitor online activity. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation—which includes Russia and China—approved an agreement that defined aggression online and 'information war,' as any effort to undermine another country’s 'political, economic and social systems.'
Societal security, so they claim, is affected by ‘subversive’ cyber activity that aids in mobilising individuals against authoritarian rule. They want to frame the cybersecurity debate to include limitations on internet freedom, the ability to use the internet and its various platforms freely, anonymously and without monitoring.
This sets a disturbing precedent for those who believe in universal human rights and the right to civil disobedience. As more and more human activity migrates online, and the debate over the utility of cyber technologies to assist in legitimate political protest expands, it is imperative that universal internet freedom is not subsumed under a relativist cybersecurity debate.
* These are the author’s personal views.