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Lessons of Egypt's online crackdown

By Elisa Massimino, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elisa Massimino says Egypt has been repressive but hadn't cut internet before last week
  • She says activists not prepared with "work-arounds" for such cuts, as people are in China
  • Disruption hurt Egypt's economy; in future, regimes will likely use China's nuanced restrictions
  • Writer: U.S. can battle censors by pressing tech firms not to sell products used for restrictions

Editor's note: Elisa Massimino is the president and CEO of Human Rights First.

(CNN) -- The Mubarak regime has been undemocratic and corrupt. It has abused its citizens. But, until last week, one thing it didn't do was crack down on online communication.

To be sure, Egyptian authorities punished outspoken dissidents, but that control was exercised offline. As Egyptian human rights lawyer Gamal Eid noted, Egyptian government authorities didn't bother censoring their critics, they simply beat them up. In a particularly brutal case, last year Egyptian police officers beat a man to death outside an internet café in broad daylight. The regime was cruel but not technologically sophisticated.

So last week, when the Mubarak regime decided to shut down the internet, human rights advocates, civil society groups and dissidents were caught flat-footed. They had never developed the work-arounds that others in societies with a history of online censorship had.

Of course, by shutting down the entire internet in a failed attempt to disrupt pro-democracy forces, the Egyptian government also disrupted commerce and tourism and brought the country's economy to a standstill.

Meanwhile, China's more evolved system of online filtering is limiting its citizens' ability to access information about the Egyptian protests by blocking queries for "Egypt" on its Twitter equivalent. The Great Firewall is curtailing free speech, but the Chinese economy keeps chugging along.

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There are a lot of questions that need to be answered about how Egypt was able to pull the plug so easily on the entire country's internet. In particular, internet users need to know how and to what extent companies decided to comply with the Egyptian government's request to do so. But one thing is clear for the future: Countries looking to suppress popular unrest undoubtedly will seek to emulate China, not Egypt.

Censorship appears to be less costly to authoritarian regimes when it's done with virtual firewalls, not a wrecking ball.

What this means for the Obama administration, which has been slow off the mark to align its statements and policies on Egypt with its professed commitment to human rights, is that there's a chance to get ahead of events in the next round of the fight between censor and citizen.

American companies are producing the technology that will allow governments to filter and track speech on the internet. Companies such as Cisco, Netgear and Sonicwall ship orders for firewalls containing Deep Packet Inspection technology -- which allows monitoring of data traffic -- to China, Jordan or Belarus. Before they do so, the Obama administration should urge due diligence to ensure that these products will not be used to restrict the free speech rights of the people of those countries.

Technological innovation need not only benefit autocrats. The U.S. State Department has begun to make important investments in a variety of initiatives to promote internet freedom.

The recent promise of $30 million in support for projects and services to advance the cause of internet freedom has the potential to speed the development and deployment of technologies designed to help internet users in closed societies gain free and safe access to the internet.

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated a vision of a world with "one internet, one global community and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all." A step toward making that vision a reality is recognizing that the lessons from today's upheaval in Egypt have implications for internet freedom around the world.

We can be sure that the leaders of closed societies are fortifying their online firewalls now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elisa Massimino.

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