The internet is stronger than any regime

Mohamed Abul Ghar
Tuesday 23 Aug 2016

Dictators, all of them, want to go back to times where a head of state was fully in control of all the media.

But this is not happening. On the contrary, the internet is making continual progress and is becoming much more accessible through fast-advancing smart phones, which in turn are increasingly accessible.

In Egypt, the Ministry of Interior tried long and hard to block the entry of smart phones to Egypt (back in the 1990s). Inevitably, it had to give in, but it insisted that service providers should allow the ministry access to check on service users when it so wishes.

Today, smart phones along with the internet are turning the world around with fascinating effect, with direct access to the communication of users denied (as with viber, whatsapp and so on).

Still the interior ministry is doing everything it can to monitor the communications of some of the regime's opponents and to leak some of the intelligence gathered to TV channels that are closely associated with the security bodies as a part of a large character assassination campaign that targets opposition figures.

Obviously, this is both unconstitutional and illegal. Had this happened in a democracy it would have had incredible consequences.

But it is not just about phones. When we think that a few years ago the government was blocking GPS that is now in common use by all drivers, both private and those providing commercial services. Now the ministry is simply unable to stop it.

To be sure, IT advances have been also used by evil groups all over the world, like ISIS that has been using the internet to recruit potential terrorists and to execute attacks.

However, at the same time, IT progress has allowed what was previously unthinkable, whether rescue in cases of emergency or helping the world to predict and minimise the damaging consequences of natural disasters.

Four decades ago, it took significant effort to promptly access published scientific research. This is not the case at all today.

In the meantime, IT advances pose a serious challenge to the world press and certainly influence the content of papers and their circulation.

Fifty years ago, the Friday edition of Al-Ahram and Akhbar Al-Youm of Saturday used to sell a million copies. Today, with more than double the population, this circulation is hard to reach, not just by these two leading papers but by all papers combined that are published in Egypt every morning.

This is not just about Egypt; it is happening all over the world where leading newspapers have shut down and where subscriptions to online editions are fast taking over.

I personally have a full subscription to The New York Times online that gives me full access to the paper for one dollar a week.

A few years ago, a group of Gulf businessmen invested a fortune to buy the originals of the classics of Egyptian cinema. Today, the internet has made their monopolised acquisition redundant as everything becomes available online.

Advances in IT have also revolutionised our take on the news. If a president makes a statement that is worthwhile, it fast appears in highlights online. But if there is something happening more interesting than the speech, it will make almost no appearance online, no matter how many times the state-run media kept playing the statement over and over again to a limited audience.

Meanwhile, it has become practically impossible to keep events from being reported. An assault on a Coptic citizen in a very small village in the very heart of Upper Egypt will make headlines.

In short, the internet is scaring off almost every key official. They know they are scrutinised in a way that their predecessors were never scrutinised some 20 years ago.

The internet has turned our world around. It has given us incredible and easy access to entertainment, from cinema to sports; it has given us incredible access to scientific progress, and it made sharing this progress easy all over the world. Now, a medical doctor in whatever location can receive online training for complicated surgery.

It does not matter how much dictators and other officials want the internet gone so they can avoid being exposed, as they have become.

The internet is not going anywhere and our lives will be more fun and easier because of it. The only way out for dictators, to be spared the scrutiny of the internet, is to opt for democracy.

The writer is former head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

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