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Page last updated at 18:37 GMT, Friday, 4 February 2011

Are governments closing the net around web freedom?

By Alex Hudson
BBC Click


Al Gore believes users, and not corporations, should be in charge of the web

While the internet in Egypt has been re-established, the decision to cut off mobile and web networks was near-unprecedented.

Does this mean that the "democracy" and "freedom" so often talked about in relation to the internet is under threat?

A poster placed on a lamp post calls for the return of the internet after it was shut down by the government
Facebook says that "no one should be denied access to the Internet"

The uprising in Egypt is "World Web War I", says journalist Barton Gellman in Time Magazine. Cutting off nearly all internet traffic for five days created a backlash, not only from the people of Egypt but from the usually apolitical companies Google and Twitter.

Google did not comment on the political situation but wanted to "go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time" by offering an internet-free way of using Twitter over the phone.

The right to a voice online, it seems, is of paramount importance - not just in Egypt but around the world

At Campus Party in Brazil last month, Al Gore called on the public to act in preserving what he believes is a system vital for democracy.

"Defend the internet," he said.

"Do not let it be controlled by governments or by large corporations. It is a network of people."

But there are signs that the web is becoming dominated by the few.

According to web analytics firm Compete, the top 10 websites were responsible for 31% of US page views in 2001, rising to around 75% in most recent estimates.

Facebook alone accounts for around a quarter of all US internet traffic.

Large social networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the web
Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web

"Al Gore's comments sound nice in theory but I just don't see how they will work out in practice," says Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of the Internet.

"It's inevitable that governments will be active online, simply because so much of public life happens online - and governments are there to enforce laws guiding public life.

"Likewise, I don't see how you can keep the corporations out - certain things can be done on the cheap and with the help of peer-to-peer [systems without a central infrastructure] alternatives but we surely can't expect that each of us will be laying internet cables to our own houses."

'Endangering rights'

But the idea of government or big corporations somehow limiting the scope of people to interact with each other freely is worrying the creator of the world wide web itself, Tim Berners-Lee.

"Some of [the web's] most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles," he wrote in the Scientific American.

"Large social networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the web.

"Wireless internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments - totalitarian and democratic alike - are monitoring people's online habits, endangering important human rights."

Campus Party - Las Vegas for techies

As seen at Campus Party, open source software that is free to use and for everyone to develop is a big part of web culture - "collaboration" and "openness" have always been big words for web enthusiasts.

But the internet is slowly changing, the internet has been flooded with the influx of apps. While often easier to use, apps contain content that is more easily controlled by the app's creator and creates a "walled garden" of information.

This means more information is being selected and offered without users going out and searching for it.

This filter of information that is quite different from the free-for-all of the world wide web. And this shift in culture is having a big impact.

In its short history, Apple's app-store has just announced its 10 billionth download and that is not even to take into consideration over 30m phones shipped worldwide in 2010 using the Android operating system.

US 'kill-switch'

Over recent years, much has been made of the firewalls in place in China and the watchful eye of the North Korean government on its citizens' internet activity.

US notice on seized website
Some website domains have been seized by the US Department of Justice

And Egypt is not the only country that has censored the internet. According to the think-tank Reporters Without Borders, a large proportion of the Americas and Europe has at least some form of censorship in place.

Many groups in the US, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have written an open letter opposing the idea of a US "internet kill-switch" plan, saying that it could be used to censor the internet.

While the White House says it would be only used if absolutely necessary and even then to cause the "least possible impact", critics are not convinced.

The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act - as it is officially known - would give the president the power to shut down parts of the internet if there was a cyber-attack on critical infrastructure.

Despite the criticism, similar powers have actually been in place since 1942, though times - and ways to communicate - have changed.

What has changed recently is that, with the "kill-switch" process in Egypt receiving such widespread criticism, many commentators are now calling into question whether this legislation will be passed after all.

Arbor graph of Egypt internet traffic, Arbor Networks
The drop in net traffic in Egypt was swift and dramatic

Recent examples seem to suggest that closing down parts of the internet is one of the first ways governments will attempt to stifle protest.

Social networks have changed and added to traditional methods of picketing and posters and, while unlikely to happen in democratic states, some say other authoritarian regimes could consider the same methods as Egypt to stall a potential uprising.

"The lesson for tyrants here is simple," says Mr Morozov.

"The only way to minimise [a country's] exposure to digitally-enabled protests is to establish full control over all telecommunications infrastructure in the country.

"A 'kill-switch' button to turn off all digital networks in times of a crisis is a must... [but] those who think that there is nothing for dictators to gain from the web - because they shut it down during protests - have a naive view of modern authoritarianism."

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