WASHINGTON, June 17, 2011 - In the past year, there has been an extensive push for universal access to Internet, seen as the ultimate democratizing tool enabling two-way communication between governors and the governed. But the reality of a ‘digital divide’ leaves the majority of the world’s population without access to the technological infrastructure to support its use. And those who do have access are sometimes more vulnerable to restriction on political basis, as seen in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Such was the case in Syria on June 3, when the government shut down the country’s Internet network. Although fully restored the following day, the country’s 3G, DSL and dial-up were disconnected the same day massive protests and marches were being organized throughout the country to call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and for “Children’s Friday,” to honor children who had died during the uprisings.
An Internet “kill switch” was used earlier this year in Egypt and Libya, as well as in Iran in 2009, but this was the first recognized occurence in Syria, which has been in a period of political unrest for the past several months and seen violent crackdowns on protestors that have killed more than 1,000 people.
In an almost ironic turn, the Syrian Internet shutdown occured just hours before United Nations Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue, issued a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on freedom of expression, claiming that Internet access is a basic human right.
In his report, La Rue said he was concerned about the “emerging trend of timed blocking to prevent users from accessing or disseminating information at key political moments,” and that cutting off Internet access is a violation of Article 19 of the UN’s human rights law.
The report and recommendations focus both on a universal right to access content, that is, a political right to communicate freely via the Internet and on the technical infrastructure that enables the communication. Currently, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population is left wanting in this respect.
“Each State should thus develop a concrete and effective policy...to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population,” said La Rue in the report.
Throughout the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Internet has played a crucial role as dissenters have used social media and various sites to organize and mobilize communities and to get the word out to the world, as in many cases, foreign journalists have been restricted. Social media sites like Facebook and YouTube were banned in Syria until February, and although eventually made accessible, have been monitored by government authorities, especially during protests.
Despite the open nature of the Internet’s architecture, the ability of governments and regulators to control and monitor citizens’ access is worrisome for proponents of Internet freedom, and has led to technological innovations and investments to combat the threat.
Highlighted in the New York Times, one such project is the New America Foundation’s “Internet in a suitcase,” developed by the research group’s Open Technology Initiative. With $2 million in State Department funds, the “shadow” Internet technology would create portable wireless access which could be used in the event of an Internet shutdown, and would be difficult to monitor.
“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative said in an interview with the New York Times.
With national and transnational organizations weighing in, the focus on freedom of expression through the Internet seems to be in both the technical capacity for communication, and the arguably ideological capacity which results from political frameworks granting citizen rights. While the push for Internet freedom may not have been inspired by the most recent political unrest in the Middle East, or technological innovations like the “shadow” Internet, the two objectives seem to be going hand in hand.