02/01/2011 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Must Stay Plugged In: The Internet Is Central to Democracy

Co-authored by Brian Merchant of The Utopianist

The Internet's social networking capability has emerged as a central tool for modern social revolutions; that much is certain. We can debate the true extent of the Internet's impact, the precise nature of its role in fomenting the movements another time (people revolt because they're mad, not because they're online, sayeth the skeptic). Suffice to say that without Twitter and Facebook, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt would have at least unfolded very differently.

And that despite its over-emphasis in the media's North Africa revolution narrative, the Internet nonetheless provides an unprecedented ease of communication, acts as a vehicle for mass participation, and allows for new heights of transparency. And thanks to these attributes, it's proving to be good at encouraging democratic behavior -- perhaps not yet entirely in governments, but we can already see its fruitful impact on institutions, information projects, and social movements.

So, of course, revolution and good governance is still possible without the Internet -- TechCrunch points to this anecdote while telling folks to calm down a bit about the #TwitterRevolution: When they were younger than I am now, my parents were witness to a student movement that eventually toppled a dictatorship in Greece through the radio. Communication in its sundry and consistently evolving forms is and always has been as powerful a utility as electricity and running water, and it's important that we protect it as such no matter what its incarnation.

And the internet is even more powerful, more fluid, and far-further reaching than radio -- perhaps the biggest difference being that it provides a vivid pipeline to the global community. As such, the global community had trouble processing the fact that the pipeline had been turned off -- that Egypt had been taken offline. How exactly this was accomplished remains something of a mystery, but it's been done. Surely, for a society that has come to depend on the Internet as a means of obtaining information, communicating, and storing data about their lives and bank accounts, this is not only an extreme version of press censorship, but a direct assault on an entire populace's well-being.

Consider this: as of now, many folks still have one foot out the door, so to speak -- we have physical records as well as digital ones, personal information online and off, and so forth. But as the trend tips the scales further towards a world where we keep our most important stuff in the cloud, what would happen to civil society if the Internet were flipped off? And even the American government is currently vying for the power to do exactly that under certain circumstances.

Indeed, it should make us consider how integral the Internet is to our functioning society -- We've long considered the Internet to be this indelible, un-restrainable force for freedom of information. We might now need to start thinking of it as something that needs to be upheld and protected through democratic means. Here's Alex Pasternack at Motherboard:

The gap between the medium's potential and its sudden disappearance in Egypt is a vivid reminder of its susceptibility to both government and corporate power. Here is why net neutrality is such a precious principle. The war over it is just getting started in the U.S., thanks to the FCC's burgeoning framework; Egypt's webicide sits in another theater of war.

But the Internet, at least as we like to think of it, transcends borders, functions as a vital transnational conduit. As Egypt's case illustrates, even when a battle is waged in one country, it can effect everyone else. We don't yet have a set of principles, much less a set of laws, for dealing with this information chaos. (What role might the enfeebled United Nations play on the Web? What if the legal framework that, for instance, could allow the U.S. to prosecute a European who uses the Internet to spread secret information were applied to the entire medium itself?)"

Few of history's favorite utopian thinkers included in their visions an entity that bound citizens together by vast flows of easily accessible, up-to-the-minute information regarding affairs both private and public, world-changing and trivial. But giving citizens more and better access to that information, as well as an increasingly interactive portal into other's lives, has become inextricable from the fabric of any effort to improve society's institutions.

The Internet both defines our personal culture and serves as an important check on injustice of all kinds. Which is why it's time to start constructing a valid legal framework to protect the Internet from government abuse or corporatist influence -- and we can start by alerting the public to the fact that, for the betterment of society, this must be done in the first place. Few may understand the importance of net neutrality, but everyone can now, due to Egypt's unfortunate example, envision a society where the Web's plug has been pulled. This should not be allowed to happen.

The Internet must be upheld!

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