Can social public be silenced?

Merry year of the rabbit! While some parts of the world celebrated the lunar new year last week, the turmoil in Egypt had escalated into a violent clash between anti- and pro-Mubarak protesters.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Merry year of the rabbit! While some parts of the world celebrated the lunar new year last week, the turmoil in Egypt had escalated into a violent clash between anti- and pro-Mubarak protesters.

It follows a week of chaos which saw Internet and mobile communications in the country grind to a halt. Sites including Facebook and Twitter were inaccessible, and all mobile operators in the country such as Vodafone were ordered to shut down their services in selected areas.

It got me wondering if the same could play out in Singapore and what would happen if it did.

In a statement on the Egyptian state of affairs, Ovum analyst Angel Dobardziev said the communication shutdown has several implications for the wider telecoms industry including the underlining political risk for players, such as Vodafone, RIM and Google, operating in emerging markets.

"More importantly, it is clear that the massive growth of mobile and Internet services, while bringing massive productivity and social benefits to the region, has also brought a whole new level of social connectness, openness, information access and aspiration," Dobardziev said, adding that the increasing pervasiveness of telecommunications "accelerated the clash between tradition and modernity".

The trigger point for Egypt's revolt has been largely attributed to a Facebook page administered by 30-year-old Google marketing executive, Wael Ghonim, who called for Egyptians to denounce government-linked torture and organized the first day of protest on Jan. 25.

Protesters turned to the Web and social platforms to communicate with fellow protesters and organize marches. There were even Tweets that dispensed advice on how to wash off teargas and to avoid wearing contact lenses during demonstrations.

Small wonder then that the Egyptian government sought to block Internet connection and mobile services. The question, though, is: can the Internet be shut down? More importantly, can an increasingly social online community be silenced?

Dobardziev noted: "While some regimes may try, there is no way of reversing the impact communications have made on the emerging markets and their people."

The truth of the matter is, there really is no kill switch for the Internet. There is so much content mirroring and network redundancies implemented today, to ensure the Web stays up 24 by 7, that there is just no way to turn it off simply by shutting down communications in one location or country.

And even if the idea is remotely plausible, doing so would have such severe economic and social repercussions that governments would think twice before pulling the plug.

Singapore, for instance, has an Internet penetration rate of 81 percent and an even higher mobile penetration rate of 143.6 percent.

One in four people living in the city-state, or 25.7 percent of the local population, is a foreigner and according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, there are over 14,000 multinational corporations in Singapore.

A report this week also described the country as some of the world's most evolved social media markets, where survey findings revealed that Singaporeans' lives converge online and offline.

In a society so wired and digitally connected to the world, any attempts to cut off Internet and mobile communications in Singapore would surely have serious ramification on the nation's social and economic wellbeing. And such efforts shouldn't be rationalized by the intent to quell social unrest--shutting someone's mouth would do little to ease his unhappy heart.

Governments should instead leverage the Internet and social networks to clarify their policies and resolve grievances. Besides, the Singapore government has underscored a strong desire to engage its population more actively online so any efforts to cut Web connectivity in the country would run contrary--at worst, deemed hypocritical--to its "social" aspiration.

And hopefully, its policy to gazette political sites and blogs is necessary mainly to encourage accountability, and not as a way to bring its critics to court.

This year's upcoming national elections will be especially interesting time for Singapore since it is probably the first to be held since the uprising of social networks and other Web 2.0 platforms in the country. The last elections were held in 2006.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, the country had just 740,220 Facebook users. Today, this number clocks in at over 1.9 million, many of whom no doubt will be following the elections closely.

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