As one watches the events unfold in Cairo, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the Egyptian citizens who want, more than anything, to share the values of freedom and openness, but must risk life and limb to do so. For me, freedom is the most important human aspiration. No one should be denied the right to determine their own destiny, to be free of oppression or to enjoy bedrock liberties like the right to free speech, a free media, free association and, most of all, the opportunity to participate equally in building a more prosperous, free and sustainable global economy. And as recent events indicate, the same deep stirrings for individual expression and democracy that are evident in Egypt are present in many other countries (Tunisia, Yemen, Iran …) where the universal aspiration for freedom remains unfulfilled.
There has been much concern recently that some observers have overstated the role of the Internet in promoting freedom and democracy around the world. Evgeny Morozov rightly points out that “Tweets don’t overthrow governments; people do,” noting that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes. Morozov points out that secret police increasingly gather incriminating evidence by scanning the photos and videos uploaded to Flickr and YouTube by protesters and their Western sympathizers. “They might even serve as an early warning system for authoritarian rulers,” he says.
All true—the Internet is no panacea for freedom. But to dismiss the role of the Internet is equally wrong given the growing body of evidence to suggest that new freedoms of expression and networking enabled by the Web underpin a profound shift in attitudes in many countries, especially among youth. Will youth rise up to affect positive change, cementing new rights and freedoms not just through their tweets, but also through their courageous actions? Events in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt suggest they will certainly try, even if decisive political revolutions have yet to materialize in some of the more authoritarian countries like Burma and North Korea.