Forget Twitter and Facebook; this is a satellite TV revolution

Baruch, today’s lesson: The internet and mobile telephony are not robust technologies when it comes to withstanding state intervention. States can and do pull the plug on them when they sense an existential threat. China turned off the Internet in restless  Xinjiang for 9 months in 2009-2010, and Iran and other countries turn off sms and mobile internet use when it suits them. Today, Egypt’s authorities tried to dampen a popular uprising by shutting down both its Internet and mobile telephony.

This is sobering, but points the way to how such draconian measures can be circumvented by those intent on accessing independent news: By not relying at all on terrestrial infrastructure such as cell towers and Internet cabling, falling back instead on direct satellite communications.

By necessity, this set-up reverts to a broadcast/receiver relationship, with international broadcasters like the BBC and Al Jazeera able to invest in satellite video phones as a back-up in case authorities turn off other means of broadcasting live. The Egyptian people, meanwhile, have ubiquitous access to satellite television — as anyone who’s been to Cairo can attest after just a brief glance across the rooftops:

Satellite dishes on Cairo rooftops.

There is no way to restrict the reception of such broadcasting — there is no way for Mubarak to prevent Egyptians from watching satellite broadcasts of Al Jazeera short of turning off the electricity. This fall-back on satellite reception is not something widely available in all countries. In China, for example, it is cable television that is ubiquitous, a terrestrial mode of communication, that can and is blacked out at will by the Chinese authorities — most recently whenever CNN broadcast news of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize.

While I am sure that much of Egypt’s older cohorts are glued to their televisions tonight, I wonder if turning off the Internet and mobile telephony earlier today didn’t have an effect opposite to what Mubarak’s regime intended: Egypt’s urban youth, suddenly without their main means of diversion or entertainment, had only the streets to go to. For once, there was no Twitter or Facebook or YouTube to distract them. All that was left to do was to go out and vent their rage.


8 thoughts on “Forget Twitter and Facebook; this is a satellite TV revolution”

  1. They just can’t help themselves the pundits. Now even that Steven Walt is banging on about how this is a revolution where

    “a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.”

    I wonder what people did without satellite TV, Twitter and, most ridiculous idea of all, FB (“Oh no, Che Guevara has found a lonely cow!”). Presumably there weren’t any revolutions. We’ve seen just how truly internet meedja is urban guerilla when it came to Amazon and Paypal standing up for internet freedom over Wikileaks.

  2. I just finished reading two new books by Robert Darnton describing (purely coincidentally, I’m sure) information networks in pre-Revolutionary France. ‘Poetry and the Police’ describes how seditious poems were passed around from hand to hand in Paris, and ‘The Devil in the Holy Water’ describes the various groups of scribblers and publishers who wrote and distributed libels in both Paris and London. Wonderful stuff, and, yes, pertinent.

  3. I live in Cairo. I can confirm that I have been watching BBC and Al-Jazeera almost non-stop for the past two weeks for information. It’s not a healthy way to live, since they of course sex things up, but it was one of the best sources of news (as well as the local papers). I think cutting of the net and phones was a very serious mistake – people recognised the government was scared, and came onto the streets.

    Incidentally, Ayatollah Khomeini was sending sermons on cassette tapes to Iran for years before the revolution – even he saw the benefits of new technologies.

  4. Excellent point and not one I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere.

    As for Amazon, I now buy from BookRepository in the UK , my small protest against their Wikileaks betrayal.

    BTW, new to this site – it’s terrific. Thanks.

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