Have social networks become weapons of revolution? Pundits are speculating that this may be the case in Egypt, where massive riots -- often organized via social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- caused Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to shut down the Internet on Friday.
The move is aimed at throttling the forums that are giving voice to the discontent rocking the Middle Eastern country. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the move "unprecedented" and urge Egypt's government to reverse course. And hackers are already posting instructions on how to get around these blocks, underscoring the likely futility of these efforts at censorship.
Social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, are hugely popular among young people, who are using them to help fuel the rage in the Middle East. Their popularity makes these networks effective communication tools, especially considering the region's abundance of young people.
The median age of Egyptians is 24 years old, according to the CIA World Fact Book, compared to a median age of 36.8 years old in the U.S. In Tunisia, where protests led to President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's departure from office earlier this month, the median age of the population is 29.7. And in Iran, which erupted in protests last year, the population's median age is 26.3.
The Internet Isn't the Cause
But while social networks may give discontented residents an easy way to air their concerns, they can't be blamed for causing the underlying conditions behind the protests. Taking away the Internet doesn't change the fact that Egyptians still have plenty to complain about.
Although the economy remains fairly strong, the living conditions for many Egyptians remain poor and unemployment remains high among the young. Corruption remains epidemic. A 2009 study found that 47% of small and mid-sized businesses admitted to bribing public officials.
"Even educated Egyptians find it difficult to land jobs in either the public sector (which has been shrinking) or the private sector (for which their educations have ill prepared them)," writes The vast majority of the country's more than 80 million people subsist on less than $4 per day. Meanwhile, the cost of living has steadily climbed as the government has pursued aggressive macroeconomic reform, which has earned plaudits from the International Monetary Fund, but resulted in remarkably little trickle-down."
These are some of the same conditions that have sparked uprisings in other countries in the past. In Tunisia, for example, U.S. officials ignored widespread corruption and nepotism for years. Unemployment, at 14% last year, also remained a vexing problem for the educated middle class. And Tunisians grew tired of the Mafia-like rule of recently ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his relatives. Many other Middle Eastern countries face similar issues.
In Egypt, Mubarek, who assumed power in 1981, is trying to tighten his control over the media as citizens take to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. This strategy is hardly a new one: Soviet Union leaders regularly jammed shortwave signals from the Voice of America and the BBC, and Chinese officials routinely censor broadcasts from foreign news organizations.
But these tactics aren't foolproof. Forbidden news can evade even the best-designed censorship networks. Last year, PC World reported that an underground website was successfully operating from inside the hermetic nation of North Korea.
And social networks make the job of totalitarian regimes even harder. "The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact," Twitter says on its corporate blog. "This is both a practical and ethical belief. On a practical level, we simply cannot review all 100 million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day."
Internet Didn't Cause the Riots: Why Egypt's Web Shutdown Won't Work