In November 2005, Tunisia hosted the World Summit on the Information Society. Three years later, in 2008, the Wikimedia Foundation held its international conference at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Both countries had hoped to show the world that despite their repressive regimes, they favored a relatively open internet, and that basic civil liberties such as freedom of expression were protected by the respective governments. That seemed to have backfired on them.
Reports coming out of Egypt this morning indicate that the internet has been switched off in the country. This is a far cry from Iran banning Twitter or Pakistan banning Facebook, though in the former case at least, that was done to stifle dissent. While Silicon Valley VCs (and Goldmann Sachs) ogle the latest internet fads as a way to make a quick buck, people around the world are turning websites into a modern-day samizdat press, able to spread their “subversive” message to the widest possible audience. That has authoritarian regimes quaking.
Rather than ban specific websites (which can easily be subverted by using a proxy), Egypt has decided to shut down the entire internet, and close all channels of information distribution. This is more than a simple “Facebook Revolt,” a term used by the Daily Beast and copied by Newsweek. Still, it raises questions about the social responsibility that websites such as Twitter and Facebook bear. Who ultimately controls the message—government or business interests? Authoritarian regimes or enlightened investors? The party, the publicans, or the plebs? It’s a question that will have to be addressed, and it will have to be addressed first right here in Silicon Valley.