After speaking last night with a journalist who is covering the anti-government protests in Egypt, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow joked that she had been tempted to stop everything during the interview to tweet what the reporter had been telling her.
That impulse, she said, was an indication of how critical Twitter and social media channels are to the unrest taking place halfway around the world. In many cases, news of what has been happening in Egypt has been disseminated to a global audience by users in other countries who found ways to reach protesters in Egypt and gather the facts.
This roundabout way of delivering the news was a result of the oppressive government in Egypt blocking internet access (but later restoring it). The shutdown was a tactic that the Moubarak administration had hoped would quell dissident.
Clearly it failed for a number of reasons. And for those in Egypt who were still able to digitally communicate with the outside world despite the plug-pull, we can thank really smart and awesome hackers.
This Orwellian-style information repression seems far removed from our country – one that has led the world in its creation of social media tools – that it is easy to pass it off as something that would never, really, affect Americans. But before we count the blessings of living in a unyielding democracy, where people (and the flow of information) is free, it is important to revisit a controversial bill in Congress that is certain to be revived this year.
Yes, I am speaking of the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, introduced last summer by Sens. Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman – yes, the same Connecticut lawmaker who encouraged certain web stalwarts, such as Amazon, to stop doing business with WikiLeaks even though that site is nothing different than The New York Times or any other newspaper, for that matter.
I've taken issue with this proposed measure in the past and believe that the events in Egypt, combined with apparent plans for the bill's resurrection sometime this year, warrant another mention. While supporters insist that the legislation wouldn't stifle free speech and only would enable the president to cut off certain parts of the internet in the unlikely event of America's critical infrastructure coming under siege, we must wonder how far the U.S. government would go to hush dissenting speech if an Egypt-like incident occurred within our borders.
It is hard to fathom such a scenario, but I encourage each and every one of you to not only look at the positives of such a bill – safeguarding our most precious resources – but also the potential ramifications of unrestrained and unchecked presidential powers.