Egypt Shuts Down Internet: ‘It Can’t Happen Here’

On Jan. 27, Egypt’s government shut down the internet to stifle live reports on the unrest in its urban centers. The Associated Press reported it only took six phone calls to separate the sophisticated internet reliant country from the rest of the world.

AP reporter Jordan Robertson had the good sense to ask: could it be done in the United States. He found an expert:

“It can’t happen here,” said Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer and a co-founder of Renesys, a network security firm in Manchester, N.H., that studies Internet disruptions. “How many people would you have to call to shut down the U.S. Internet? Hundreds, thousands maybe? We have enough Internet here that we can have our own Internet. If you cut it off, that leads to a philosophical question: Who got cut off from the Internet, us or the rest of the world?”

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It Can’t Happen Here is also the title of Sinclair Lewis’s cautionary 1935 novel. In 1930 Lewis had become the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Like many liberals of his time, the rise of fascism worldwide and populism in the US, scared him.

Remember the Kentucky Night-Riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition — shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor — no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade — only of adults — right now…. Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1935), p. 22.

It Can’t Happen Here supposes that Franklin Roosevelt lost the 1936 election to a populist very much like Louisiana Sen. Huey Long who had the support of a master publicist like Father Charles Coughlin.

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill. Id., p. 86.

After winning the election, the Senator usurped power.

Everyone … had said in 1935, “If there ever is a Fascist dictatorship here, American humor and pioneer independence are so marked that it will be absolutely different from anything in Europe.” Id., p. 344.

Everyone was wrong in Lewis’s grim novel. Like Hitler and Mussolini, the American Fascists consolidated their power by ‘controlling every item in the press, breaking up at the start any association which might become dangerous….’ Id. p. 314.

An iron law of finance and history dictates: If it can’t happen, it will. on Jan. 28 – two days after Egypt’s internet shutdown – reported, ‘Internet “Kill Switch” legislation back in play.’ One may presume that the bill’s proponent, US Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee believes such a kill switch exists. Certainly its opponents do.

But, in ‘Caught in the net’, The Economist for Jan suggests authoritarian regimes have reached a Faustian deal with their subjects which minimizes the need for an off switch. Reviewing Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, it declares:

In fact, authoritarian regimes can use the internet, as well as greater access to other kinds of media, such as television, to their advantage. Allowing East Germans to watch American soap operas on West German television, for example, seems to have acted as a form of pacification that actually reduced people’s interest in politics. Surveys found that East Germans with access to Western television were less likely to express dissatisfaction with the regime. As one East German dissident lamented, “the whole people could leave the country and move to the West as a man at 8pm, via television.”

Mr Morozov catalogues many similar examples of the internet being used with similarly pacifying consequences today, as authoritarian regimes make an implicit deal with their populations: help yourselves to pirated films, silly video clips and online pornography, but stay away from politics. “The internet”, Mr Morozov argues, “has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that it has become considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.”

In the midst of the Depression when radio and talking pictures were still new, Sinclair Lewis foresaw Americans diverted differently:

As month by month they saw that they had been cheated with marked cards again, they were indignant; but they were busy with cornfield and sawmill and dairy and motor factory, and it took the impertinent idiocy of demanding that they march down into the [Mexican] desert and help steal a friendly country to jab them into awakening and into discovering that, while they had been asleep, they had been kidnapped by a small gang of criminals armed with high ideals, well-buttered words, and a lot of machine guns. It Can’t Happen Here, pp. 447-48.

But, all to the same end and with the same lesson to be drawn.