The Freedom to Connect


Amid the torrent of images and videos related to the ongoing protests in Egypt, this clip from Al-Jazeera English has been making the rounds through the Twittersphere and on Tumblr's visually rich Egypt channel. While many observers on Tumblr have focused on the Al-Jazeera reporter's thorough evisceration of State Department official PJ Crowley's carefully constructed talking points, there's an interesting moment at 0:50 in which Crowley declares Mubarak's attempts to constrain Egyptian access to the Internet as a violation of a basic human right:

"We want to make sure that Egypt is not interfering with the use of social media," Crowley said. "That's a fundamental right as clear as walking into a town square."

Of course, as is noted in this video, the ongoing political violence and day-to-day struggles taking place in Egypt and elsewhere are probably more important than vaguer fascinations with a feel-good "Twitter revolution" circulating among the chattering classes or mainstream journalists, far from chaos in the streets of Cairo. But what's interesting here is that, despite the extremely complex relationship between the United States and Mubarak (as Shadi Hamid highlighted earlier this week on The Atlantic) and resulting diplomatic balancing act facing the Obama administration and members of the foreign service, the trope of Internet access as a fundamental right remains a salient feature in State Department talking points.

It's remarkably appropriate that the attempts at Internet censorship in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East come nearly a year after Hillary Clinton, in the midst of Google's spat with China, declared that all people are entitled to five human freedoms. The first four were famously articulated by President Roosevelt in 1941: the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Clinton articulated a new one for the Internet age: the freedom to connect. Last March, BBC surveys found that four out of five respondents consider Internet use to be a fundamental right. In the past year, the Internet as a human right have been a pet topic for technologists and political wonks, but less of a defined topic for international institutions and foreign policy.

The 2009 election protests in Iran certainly gave the political usage of the Web a substantive, practical face, allowing the world a peek inside a guarded society. In all likelihood, the unrest in the Middle East will have a profound impact on how connectivity factors into the dialogue on human rights taking place in briefing rooms and policy sessions across the globe. Writing in on Twitter's blog, co-founder Biz Stone hinted at a new emphasis on the Web in geopolitics and international relations on the horizon. "The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact," Stone wrote. "This is both a practical and ethical belief." Whether Internet censorship will become a central pillar of American foreign policy is anyone's guess, but the streams of images and video coming in through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and individual blogs serve as a reminder to governments worldwide that, in the new media century, revolutions will -- and must -- be televised.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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