During the recent political transformation in Egypt, I was struck by the government's shutdown of Twitter, Facebook and the Internet. While we often see stories about the media, communications monitoring, Internet openness and free speech, I can't recall a more blatant example of attempting to stifle dissent using control of communication channels. Technically, we're all familiar with firewalls and blocked services and how many countries run all their communications through a single pipe, but I think most of us were surprised to see all Internet shut down in Egypt.
But beyond the affront to our free speech and freedom of information sensibilities, the Egyptian government's attempt to shut down the Internet seemed to speak to a larger issue. For one thing, it seemed to underscore the disconnect between the Mubarak government and the masses. It was also emblematic of a leadership mindset that believes in control through management and restriction of information -- the idea seemingly being, "if we just keep this information from them, then the won't be upset, won't be active. They are my sheep and if I can just hide the distractions of the outside world, they will remain docile."
Information is a powerful element, potentially more valuable than gold, more explosive than gunpowder, or potentially as irrelevant as the daily updates we receive on certain celebrities. There are many aspects to information, but a couple of key elements are time and relevance. If your presented with information at a time when it isn't useful -- perhaps you get invited to an event on the day after it has taken place -- then the information loses it's value. It's not uncommon for the military to attempt to disrupt communications in battle because, if you can disrupt the element of timeliness, you can disrupt coordination.
Marketing and Information Manipulation
There is an essence of marketing that involves shaping information and how it's presented. Yet, for most of us, there is also sort of an ironic sense of system shock that we experience when we're exposed to situations where information and communication is suppressed. While not talking about a bug in the software or crappy battery life might be one form of information suppression, it's usually more than applying make-up to cover bad skin on a supermodel. But what most of us realize is that, sooner or later, the truth will come out and that if you aren't in line with the truth, very bad things can happen.
The further that you move into the suppression and disinformation end of the spectrum, the further you move into the dark side of marketing. Many products like weight-loss and erectile dysfunction cures that they pitch on television don't work; instead, they depend on a desire and a suspension of disbelief in the customer -- and they only need to get the customer to purchase once. Hollywood has opened really bad movies globally with the idea to maximize attendees before they have a chance to tell everyone how bad the movie is. Good products survive trolls and bad comments, but bad products can't escape the truth.
The Freedom to Communicate Openly
One lesson that we can take away from Egypt is that people in power who have control of communication platforms will attempt to suppress information if they perceive that it is against their interests. This is an inherent danger that looms without Net Neutrality. One of the greatest benefits of Gutenberg's printing press was that it took communications outside of the control of the church and democratized it.
While the title of my post may seem a bit incendiary, I suspect that any reaction you experience might also fueled by a sense of belief that it can't happen here. And yet, if someone had told me we would see the legislative acrobatics and the political craziness that we have seen in Wisconsin taking place in the United States, I would have thought that they were joking. Fortunately, even as the established propaganda groups continue to crank out disinformation and attempt to hide the truth, we still have an infrastructure that provides some level of open communication and dissent. With that, the truth will emerge.