News / Middle East

Technology Changes Government Response to Uprising

The Google Transparency Report shows the moment when the government in Cairo cut off access to the Internet for Egypt.  Click the graphic to see the interactive version on Google.
The Google Transparency Report shows the moment when the government in Cairo cut off access to the Internet for Egypt. Click the graphic to see the interactive version on Google.

Technology is proving to be a challenge for autocratic governments facing public uprisings. From the outset of the protests, Egypt's rulers responded with harsh tactics to shut down digital communication. Governments around the world are learning how technology can hurt them or help them.

Live pictures of the protests in Cairo were broadcast via the Arab television network, al Jazeera - until the Egyptian government jammed its satellite.

Many tweets signaled where protestors were gathering - until the Egyptian government blocked the Internet.

New media is playing an increasingly vital role in anti-government rebellions.

At al Jazeera English in Washington, reporters supplement live coverage from the network's headquarters in Qatar.  

Nick Toksvig, the bureau's executive producer, said, "The authorities have tried to make things difficult for us, which I interpret as a sign we are doing our job."

For now, al Jazeera is managing to still send out live pictures from Cairo, but only from portable satellite technology that shows this one view.

News anchors introduce their Egyptian correspondents, without mentioning their names or exact locations.

That's because their Cairo reporters have lost their credentials and some have been jailed. Al Jazeera's license to operate from Cairo has been revoked and the bureau is closed. These all are actions taken last weekend by the Egyptian government.






"Wherever you are in the world, if you want to try and control information, any outlet that expresses a view that is perhaps not your chosen view, might be a concern, especially if you are in a position of power or government," said Toksvig.

George Washington University professor Steven Livingston is monitoring twitter feeds from Egypt. The tweets are posted by individuals with handheld technology. Last week, the smart mobs - as they are called - tweeted to coordinate groups and also to warn of approaching police. This week, cell service is spotty. Google has started Speak-2-Tweet. Egyptians can phone and leave a voice message that is placed onto twitter feeds.

A recent message transmitted this way said, "Peace be with you. I'm Ehab from Cairo. I want to say one message. We are 85 million pharoahs. We fight this man, we want him to leave Egypt."

Livingston said blocking digital technology can only last so long. "It becomes a hindrance after a while for Egypt to function as a society integrated into the rest of the global economy at all, if business people can't make cellphone calls."

Livingston said an Internet feature called "event mapping" helps protesters. Red spots on the map correspond to what's happening at that location. The crowd directs its movement with the information posted.

Also, If there is a need at that location, average citizens find others who can meet the need. The grassroots coordination is done without government assistance and lacks any leader.

"It's a self-organized movement of people who can take advantage of a new kind of way of sharing information that leaves authoritarian regimes in a very difficult situation," said Livingston.

Professor Livingston said experts differ on the future of technology and its impact on oppressive governments. Some believe technology like this will liberate citizens. Others think it will empower rulers to identify and crush opposition.

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Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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