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Freedom's new helpmeet

When the Time Person of the Year 2011 award went to ‘the Protester’ I was not surprised. Despite the presence of other nominees like Steve Jobs (who needs no introduction) and Elizabeth Warren (a US Senate candidate), I still was not surprised.

It began in Tunisia, where a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi drenched himself in paint thinner and lit a match after harassment and seizure of his fruit scales by council officials. It is said to be the final straw that broke the provabial camel’s back and ignited a series of protests and revolutions that spread through out the Arab world and unto other countries across the globe. But I digress.

Instead of plugging in the headphones, entering an Internet-induced fugue state and quietly giving in to hopelessness, protesters used the Internet to find one another and take to the streets to insist on fairness and (in the Arab world) freedom. For instance in Tunisia,  a blogger recorded the protests with his BlackBerry, uploaded the video to Youtube, and it got half a million views in a day. Hours later, President Ben Ali flew to exile in Saudi Arabia. After just four weeks, they protesters had won.

The Egyptians had their own Mohamed Bouazizi: an underemployed middle-class 28-year-old named Khaled Said. Sometime in 2010, after apparently hacking a police officer’s cell phone and lifting a video of officers displaying drugs and stacks of cash, he was arrested and beaten to death. Wael Ghonim, then a 29-year-old Google executive, created a Facebook page called We Are All Khaled Said to memorialize him. It went viral! In January, Ghonim returned from Dubai to Egypt met online and then, face to face with other protesters and the rest is history.

In Madrid, Spain  Olmo Gálvez, 31, an Internet entrepreneur just back from three years working in China and new to politics helped set up social-media networks for the protest.

The Gaddafi led government saw that the Internet is a valuable wartime resource, like a critical bridge over which supplies can flow. As long as you can deny it to your enemy, you don’t blow it up — you keep it intact for your own use. And so they went for it just like Egypt did. After Gaddafi shut down all communications coming from the Libyan General Telecommunications Authority, rebels developed a new strategy that includes a new network that enabled them to communicate and access the Internet. They launched Free Libyana on the 2nd of April 2011. And by April 12th 2011, a span of ten days, Opposition said it had an amazing 725,000 subscribers. Again. the rest is history.

So, I was far from amazed when rumors began to spread, during the Occupy Nigeria protests, that BIS was going to be suspended by Telcos in the country. My timeline literarily caught fire! “Fools! have they never heard of Twitter?” “As long as there is internet, we will communicate” “We’ll use sms and phone calls” “Let the Telcos also pack up and leave!” just to mention a few of the reactions I saw. Someone actually ‘approached’ me on Twitter to ask if TimbaObjects could hack together something that would be sms based to ensure the Occupy Nigeria protests would be seen and heard by the whole world and keep communication amongst protesters alive. Guys had gotten smart!

The Internet is super important and has proven even more so being the main tool behind the social, political and economic revolution across the globe. So no matter if broadband access is a human right, protected as a mechanism for free speech or completely corrupted to serve the status quo, it’s also wise to have a backup plan.

When some future governments are backed into a corner by a popular uprising supported by Internet communication, they will probably reach the same conclusions that Libya and Egypt did: reestablish control over national communications at any cost, and pick up the pieces later. That’s why the Internet is too vital to be left in the hands of centralized authority, and it’s why you should press for more diverse Internet connectivity wherever you happen to live.

Freedom has wooed and won the Internet’s heart and she has brought along her smart kids: Social Networks. They do love their new daddy.

Long Live Freedom and it’s new Helpmeet!