Protesters fed up with political repression, corruption and poverty have toppled the government of Tunisia. They threaten to do the same in other countries throughout the Middle East as pundits hail the “Twitter and Facebook revolution”. But repressive governments have as much compunction about shutting down communication services as they do about torturing dissidents. Egypt has cut all Internet access and most mobile phone service as huge protests threaten to topple that government.

Cutting off most communication with the outside world for an extended period would be economic suicide for any modern, developed country, but temporary interruption – long enough to kill or imprison a large number of protesters without too much visibility for squeamish foreign allies – is viable for a poor country ruled by an elite supported by gifts of military technology from wealthier countries.

The protesters vulnerability is relying on highly centralized communication networks and services while fighting an overly centralized political system. The younger ones probably don’t have any memory of being without mobile phones and the Internet and may have taken them for granted.

To succeed in the face of violent repression and the shutdown of Internet and phone service, they must quickly develop low-tech methods of communication that are as fast and flexible as the ones that have been lost. This is what insurgents in Iraq did.

If that happens, it could lead to the rise of Islamic fundamentalists who have been slow to join the current rebellions, which are diverse and secular. The Islamists have built resilient, disciplined underground organizations using low-tech means over a long period of time. Like the Bolsheviks in czarist Russia, they can wait for others to do the hard work of destabilizing the regime and then seize power at the end.

The alternative is to build communication services that cannot be intercepted or shut down. Human rights activists and hackers are already starting to do it with combination of low-cost commodity hardware and free open source software:

  • Landlines still work in Egypt and a French ISP FDN offers free dialup Internet to Egyptians
  • Tech entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar put a call out on Twitter for volunteers to help construct self-configuring unblockable mobile ad hoc networks to prevent government caused blackouts during future protests worldwide
  • Telecomix, a Europe-based group working for free speech and an open Internet is developing non-Internet modes of communication, including amateur, shortwave and pirate radio to assist protesters and humanitarian relief efforts

Efforts like these could be the tipping point for the uprisings. In 1989 Czech student protesters received a gift of then state of the art 2400 baud modems from a mysterious man who may have been from the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. Modems were illegal but the most Czech police didn’t even know what they were. The students set up BBS systems to coordinate actions throughout the country and successfully overthrew the Soviet communist backed dictatorship.

In the U.S. there is a bill in Congress that would allow interruption of Internet services in a “national emergency.” Many of our current political leaders, always desperate for approval, hanging on every word of their consultants and pollsters, might consider harsh criticism more of a “national emergency” than something trivial like say, collision with an asteroid.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Today that vigilance means learning to build and modify the technology that we use rather than being passive consumers of it.

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