Feb. 14, 2011 at 8:13 AM ET
On Jan. 27, just before the Egyptian government turned off the Internet for all Egyptians, Facebook saw six times more traffic than Google inside the country. Then came the outage. Then came the protests. Two weeks later, and with relatively little bloodshed, the 30-year government of Hosni Mubarak ended. It's indisputable that the Internet and social media played a pivotal role. In fact, the revolution may not have happened without them.
How did it happen? Will historians call this the first Internet revolution? And most importantly, is this the start of a domino effect?
Time for change
A recent WikiLeak suggests that the seeds of the February 2011 revolution were already sown by late 2008, by activists called the April 6 Youth Movement who wanted to unseat Mubarak prior to the scheduled September 2011 elections. Yet few doubt that much of the momentum built in June 2010, when a Google employee named Wael Ghonim anonymously started a Facebook page to commemorate the death of Khaled Said, beaten to death by police for flaunting drug possession online.
The wildfire flame of social networking burned quickly. In just a few weeks, Ghonim's page — We are all Khaled Said — had accumulated 130,000 fans, according to the New York Times. Ghonim this week said that the page has 375,000 followers. (The English-language site visible to U.S. Facebookers has just over 71,000 followers.) In a country with around 5 million Facebook users, that is a large percentile, and doesn't count Facebook users who may visit the page without "liking" it.
Where there had been scattered planning, mostly in secret — the WikiLeaks document was not even clear whether or not the "sensitive" revolutionary plan was on the Internet — there was now public online gathering. The page served as an independent monitor of the November and December 2010 parliamentary elections, considered by many to be fraudulent. Anger built, as did the popularity of Facebook and Twitter as a means to vent that anger.
At the same time, turmoil in Tunisia boiled over, thanks largely to social media. An exiled video blogger was thanked for his role in sending a repressive dictator packing, while another blogger was named junior minister for communications in the interim government. The relatively poor country of 10 million had 4 million Internet users; restrictions were not enough to stop the social-media-fueled upheaval.
Egyptian activists, perhaps prodded by the success of the Tunisian revolt, used Facebook to organize a demonstration that started on Jan. 25. The Khaled Said page and the page run by the April 6 Youth Movement, itself with tens of thousands of followers, both advertised the protests, news of which also blew through Twitter and over mobile phones via SMS.
According to Philip N. Howard, director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington, the turn-off-the-Internet strategy was not employed to block opposing factions from organizing. The government did it specifically because it feared the amplification of true grass roots outrage.
"The real threat to the regime is people will take pictures of the police beating their brothers and sisters, and the regime can't respond well to Facebook images of the police shooting rubber bullets into a crowd," Howard told msnbc.com on Jan. 28. "There is no regime response for those images that go out over trusted networks."
This made the Egyptian government nervous, to put it mildly. And they pulled the plug.
"It's like the entire Internet forgot where Egypt was," explained Jim Cowie, CTO of Renesys, an Internet monitoring firm. "The packets we were sending asking for Egyptian Web pages just didn't have a destination." Egypt holds the dubious honor of being the first country to shut off its Internet, cutting off about 20 million people, a quarter of the nation's population.
Cowie says that the outage came as a surprise — unplugging every tentacle of the massive Leviathan that is the Internet is supposed to be a trickier task. Egypt achieved the task by ordering the country's Internet service providers to, in effect, disconnect from the rest of the world. No outside Internet traffic — or even through traffic — was affected, but communications to and from Egypt were silenced. One lonely ISP called Noor chugged along, providing limited access to essential services for Egypt's government and major businesses, but even that powered down a few days later.
Though it was likely achieved through a combination of system shutdowns and data re-routing or blocking, it was remarkably clean. Cell phone and landline voice service continued, but SMS text messaging was also disabled.
Early reports suggested that there were as many as 20 different workarounds to help Egyptians reach the outside world, and some experts suggested that people were using software that could trick their Net connection into functioning, but alas, that was not the case. Essentially only people who could dial up internationally via telephone modem — at a significant per-minute cost for a trickle of bandwidth — could stay connected during this outage, said Cowie.
Then came SpeakToTweet.
You can't stop the Internet
On Monday, Feb. 1, a service called SpeakToTweet, launched by Google and Twitter, brought voices of Net-deprived Egyptians to the global forum of Twitter by way of a phone number. Just like regular voicemail, people could call and leave a message.
The system was heralded as a wondrous workaround, and a symbol of Internet ingenuity triumphing over real world adversity. But it had problems. If you didn't speak Arabic, you probably couldn't understand a word of the messages, which came through to Twitter anonymous and almost completely unmarked. But thanks to another dose of Internet ingenuity, another group, Small World News, created a site called Alive In Egypt that posted the translations of the tweets, along with the original audio.
Small World News' founder, Brian Conley, had experimented with this voicemail style of free press before, in Gaza and in Iraq. As someone who has dedicated his adulthood to helping "those living in under-represented communities" get the tools they need to "produce media and tell stories," he had been watching the Egypt protests with interest. As the outage hit, and Google and Twitter made their move, he decided to jump in after them. All he needed were translators who would devote time, for free, to translating upwards of 1,000 garbled voice messages.
"Crowdsourcing was a big buzzword a few years back, but it only works when you have an interested and willing population looking to take action," Conley told me. "That's what we did with Alive In Egypt, we said 'Here's something you can do.'"
As many as 3,000 messages were logged by Twitter, effectively providing yet another stream of Internet news from inside Egypt, in spite of a blackout that even ultimately excluded Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network.
"It just shows you that human networks are much older than computer networks, and are much more resilient," Renesys' Cowie told me. "People will find a way around everything."
But as the outage continued, through the weekend and into the following week, the costs mounted.
"This cost Egypt tens of millions of dollars per day for lost e-business," Cowie said. It would make sense to assume, even, that the protesters themselves were not the ones hardest hit by the financial losses. Presumably big businesses, with interest in a stable Egypt, were harmed by the government-mandated outage.
So when, on Feb. 2, Egypt's Internet connections sprang back to life, it was not surprising that things resumed as they had left off before. (In fact, the outage streamlined certain connections, if anything making Egypt's Internet network run even better than before.)
But the damage to the administration was done.
"Taking away the Internet brings attention to people's protests in a way that the protests by themselves can't muster," Cowie said. The images and videos that escaped during the outage were rendered more uplifting and powerful by their illicit nature. "How do you make everybody care?" asks Cowie. "Turn off the Internet."
Other countries, other voices
Whether there will be a domino effect of Internet-fueled rebellions is not entirely clear. Nor is it known whether or not, in defense, any government would want to follow Egypt's example and turn off their Internet. While it certainly proved easier than many suspected, its economic and political costs ought to serve as a warning, said Cowie.
Small World News' Conley says it's a "fool's errand" to try to predict the next regime to fall to social-media populism. He says that despite oppressive conditions in Syria, for instance, there's no evidence of a "grassroots movement." Yemen may be at the top of the Economist's "Shoe Thrower's Index" (a listing of Arab countries arranged by political stability) but it's "basically a medieval state — the populace has no access to technology." (Over the weekend, Yemenis did take to the streets to protest their own three-decade-old regime.) Jordan may be next, he said, because under a veil of stability lurks unrest.
Conley's own mission is to go in where conflict already exists, and help provide storytelling tools to those who may not have it, and then "be ready to unroll stuff if something does happen," as in the case of Egypt.
In some countries, even the phone systems are problematic. Setting this sort of system up in Afghanistan, for instance, has been vastly more difficult. Text messages from one wireless carrier can't be sent to another, for instance, and laws prevent him from taking certain steps on his own. Conley hopes to establish a voicemail system there too — a sort of "time and temperature" call-in that lets Afghan citizens get news and share their own reports.
The real lesson, says Conley, is that the Internet cannot "just be about telling the story. It's about making sure someone is there to hear the story." He says that earlier in his experiences, he was so concerned with helping people produce ready-for-Web video and audio that he forgot about distribution to the outside world. His Alive In projects — Alive In Egypt, Baghdad, Mexico, Tehran and Gaza — are about bringing the messages abroad.
As for Egypt, the challenge for Conley and others is aggregating all of the video, audio, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, with the goal of having a functional independent site with which to monitor the presidential elections, whenever they may occur.
But Conley warns that a Facebook-fueled government overthrow is not necessarily something to celebrate without also examining the potential downsides.
"I think that it is true that greater access to social media is destabilizing the old guard," Conley said, "but there are also flash mobs of youth violence incited by Facebook."
More on the Internet and the Egyptian revolution from msnbc.com's Technolog: