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Internet wasn't real hero of Egypt

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Special to CNN
  • Rebecca MacKinnon: Ghonim says revolt began on Facebook, but he's modest; people did it
  • Phones, social networking were tools of tech-savvy citizens willing to risk harm for cause
  • She says revolution showed Web's power but also potential subversion by "bad guys"
  • MacKinnon: Tech companies should commit to upholding rights for users around the world

Editor's note: Rebecca MacKinnon is a Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, co-founder of the international bloggers' network Global Voices Online and a founding member of the Global Network Initiative. Her book, "Consent of the Networked," will be published this year by Basic Books.

(CNN) -- When asked what he thought of the French Revolution, China's first premier Chou En-lai famously replied: "It's too soon to tell." What role did the Internet play in the Egyptian Revolution? People will be arguing about the answer to that question for decades if not centuries.

Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose anonymous online activism helped bring people into the streets for those fateful protests on January 25, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that "the revolution started on Facebook," and "if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet."

Ghonim is modest. He rejects the label of "hero" and prefers to deflect credit to others. But let's be clear: He and hundreds of thousands of other Egyptians are the heroes, whether they were inspired to join the protests in Tahrir Square in the new way through Twitter or the old-fashioned way thorough their neighbors and co-workers.

The Internet, mobile phones and social networking platforms were the tools of a smaller, tech-savvy vanguard. The revolutionaries used these tools skillfully -- as successful revolutionaries always manage to do with the most disruptive technologies of their day.

Would the Protestant Reformation have happened without the printing press? Would the American Revolution have happened without pamphlets? Probably not. But neither printing presses nor pamphlets were the heroes of reform and revolution.

Now as then, the people are the heroes. People like Ghonim and countless others who were willing to risk their jobs, go to jail, face torture or death for the sake of their ideals. Without a critical mass of flesh-and-blood people willing to take life-and-death risks, connectivity on its own is not enough to bring down the kind of ruthless dictatorship that allows its police to bludgeon innocent people to death on a regular basis in order to stay in power.

The Egyptian Revolution makes it clear, if anybody was in doubt, that digital technologies are going to play a powerful role in the future of global politics. But we should expect that role to be unpredictable, and not always on the side of whoever one might call the "good guys."

The Internet is not magic "freedom juice." As Evgeny Morozov documents in his new book The Net Delusion, the Internet can be used by authoritarian regimes to manipulate, censor and monitor their citizens in subtle and sophisticated new ways. Radio was used powerfully by Josef Goebbels to disseminate Nazi propaganda, and just as powerfully by King George VI to inspire the British people to fight invasion.

The Egyptian Revolution also serves as a warning to technology companies doing business with authoritarian regimes around the world. As Vodafone learned over the past several weeks, doing the dictatorship's bidding one week may make as much good business sense as it has for many years. The next week, your company and your brand can find itself very much on the wrong side of history.

After complying without challenging government orders to switch off service at the height of the protests, and relaying government instructions to attend pro-Mubarak rallies after service was re-established, Vodafone is now working hard to build up trust with the revolutionaries who will shape Egypt's future.

In recent days Vodafone Egypt has been posting messages in English and Arabic on Facebook and Twitter about free text messaging over the next few days and amnesty for unpaid phone bills until life returns to normal.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues should all be extraordinarily proud that their service was a key tool of the heroes of the Egyptian Revolution. Yet that does not mean that however Facebook feels like designing and managing its service is automatically the best thing for democracy.

Social media and a revolution
Egyptians tweet about aftermath
  • Egypt
  • Internet
  • Facebook Inc.
  • Twitter Inc.

Facebook has won deserved praise for finally -- after much prodding from activist groups -- rolling out more secure login features. On the other hand, activists around the world -- including many in Egypt -- have struggled in recent months to deal with deactivated accounts and disabled pages at politically crucial times because they failed to use their real names on their Facebook accounts.

Facebook has grown increasingly aggressive over the past year in enforcing long-standing (though often flouted or poorly understood) terms of use requiring that people use only their real names and provide proof when challenged. In many countries where it is too dangerous to use your real name when carrying out online activism, would-be revolutionaries defy Facebook's terms-of-service and gamble that they won't be caught.

After all, being caught by Facebook for using a fake name is trivial compared to being caught by the police for organizing against the government. This gamble has worked out for many people much of the time, but it places them in a vulnerable position: Months or years of activism can be wiped out instantly in the midst of planning a vital demonstration.

If there ever was a time for companies to make a clear and public commitment to upholding the rights of their users and customers all over the world, this is it. Those who do so will find their businesses rewarded for being on the right side of history. For those who don't, there is always the dustbin.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebecca MacKinnon.

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