Can Cyberspace Liberate Us from Earthly Space?

The internet, it has long seemed, frees us from the bounds of location. We can work from home. We can shop in London or Tokyo. On Skype, we can chat with friends in Sydney, Australia as if they were next door. Meanwhile, backs up our computers to a bank of servers in Texas.

As reported Feb 15 in the New York Times, “Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet“, that illusion crashed to earth when the Mubarak government shut down the Egyptian internet for five days. In fact, they shut most of it down from one specific location, “an imposing building at 26 Ramses Street in Cairo, just two and a half miles from the epicenter of the protests, Tahrir Square.” In this spot, engineers turned off the main fiber-optic cables connecting Egypt to the rest of the world. Not only did this cut off the flow of news in and out of Egypt, but it utterly crippled the internet within Egypt by blocking access to internet address services outside Egypt.

As the Times article points out, many other despotic governments in the Middle East and Africa can shut down the internet at will because they control the key fiber-optic cables. Likewise, by controlling the cables, China can impose its “Great Firewall” to block politically-sensitive information. Even the well-connected US might be vulnerable to political interference with the internet. In an interview on PBS Newshour Feb 16, Times coauthor James Glanz observes that “there’s been some thought as to how sensitive the United States would be to about 20 phone calls.”

In short, for all the blather about a space-free world, control of key real estate matters as much as ever.  That’s a fact well-known to political parties in the US, where elections turn on who can be brought to the polls–or kept away from them.

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