January 31, 2011

As the American people and U.S. government struggle to understand the uprising in Egypt and how it may transform the Middle East, President Barack Obama and his administration have explicitly requested protections for certain media. But it isn’t news organizations they emphasize must remain accessible — it is social media and the Internet that supports it.

The same week that Obama praised Facebook as part of American innovation during his State of the Union address, he and other members of his administration legitimized use of Twitter and Facebook as part of a universal right to free expression and the democratic process.

In his first public remarks about the unrest in Egypt, Obama asked authorities and protesters there to refrain from violence. He also asserted that Egyptians have certain human rights that the United States will support.

“That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny,” Obama said. “I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.”

In mentioning social media in the same breath as physical protests and traditional forms of dissent, Obama elevated it to a place alongside several protections offered by the First Amendment.

This may be the first time an American president has referred to social networking as critical during a time of crisis.

Three women gesture for victory as they attend a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Obama’s remarks echoed earlier statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that urged Egypt “to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications.”

And it followed a tweet by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to “turn on social networking and internet” in Egypt and by Under Secretary of State Maria Otero to do the same.

Egyptians reported Wednesday that authorities had disabled access to Twitter and Facebook after they were used to organize anti-government protests that began the day before. When that proved ineffective, the government turned off practically all Internet access in the country.

Maybe it took an administration like Obama’s, whose 2008 presidential campaign gained momentum in part through use of social media, to recognize its role in the democratic process.

Certainly we have seen social media used to organize protests before, most recently in Tunisia. During the June 2009 protests in Tehran, a U.S. State Department staffer unofficially asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance outage so that the service would remain available to people there.

However, the recent official statements move beyond recognition that people can use Twitter to organize political activity and beyond debates about whether it was cause or effect or irrelevant as part of social movements. They move us beyond tools to rights.

Clinton described those rights in a 2009 speech at the Newseum that cited Tunisia and Egypt.

“The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet. When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time — from real people,” Clinton said. “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”

Clinton made it clear that Internet users are entitled to basic freedoms.

“Freedom of expression is first among them,” she said. “This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, e-mails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.”

The State Department is acting this month to protect those freedoms in ways Clinton outlined in 2009. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. will spend $30 million to protect a free Internet internationally, with plans to train activists on avoiding censorship and to provide tools for circumventing government firewalls.

Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation, Alec Ross, told The Post, “From now on, any and all dissent movements will have technology as a core component.”

Tellingly, China has now limited search results when people type “Egypt” into a Twitter-like service.

In contrast, U.S. diplomats have themselves used Twitter to express their views on developments in the country that shares borders with Libya to the west and Israel to the east.

Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley tweeted Monday, “We are concerned by the shutdown of #Al-Jazeera in #Egypt and arrest of its correspondents. Egypt must be open and the reporters released.”

Al Jazeera’s role in documenting this uprising has been important, and it may shift how the network is perceived in the United States. Based in Qatar, its Cairo bureau provided video under a Creative Commons license to other news agencies, including NBC and CNN, who have reporters in the field.

Without the democratizing effect of social media, these news organizations and the official voice of state-run TV are all that remain to witness upheaval as it happens.

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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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