Italian Internet gurus claim credit for Mideast revolutions

A Tunis meeting prepared the groundwork for more modern communications

The Internet has played a crucial role in the popular revolts that have inflamed the Middle East and Italian communications experts claim they contributed significantly when they launched an appeal for an Internet Bill of Rights at the United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis several years ago.

The wave of popular rebellions that have shaken undemocratic Arab regimes from Cairo to Bahrain and Tripoli began in Tunisia in mid-December after a street vendor vented his anger at the police by setting himself on fire.News of Mohamed Bouazizi's dramatic gesture was spread by the country's estimated 2 million Facebook users, while WikiLeaks' publication of U.S. diplomatic cables detailing the corruption of the ruling family added to popular resentment of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Internet-based social networks have been vital in summoning protesters to public demonstrations, but Italian analysts say the Internet has been even more important for the way it has fostered popular anger and a desire for freedom."The net has been fundamental for the gradual creation of a public consciousness that paved the way for the revolt," said Alessandro Gilioli, author of "The Enemies of the Net," a new book about the obstacles to the development of Internet in Italy.

"It provides instant communication that produces its effects over the course of years. It can take a blogger five years to develop a reputation for credibility," Gilioli said. "President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt closed it down too late.

"A four-day closure of Egypt's Internet network is estimated to have cost the country US$90 million in lost earnings, said Gilioli's co-author, Arturo Di Corinto. "They shut down the four main Internet providers, but left the Noor network running. Noor handles 8 percent of Egypt's Internet traffic, in particular that of the banks and the stock exchange. The bankers and stockbrokers provided a bridge for the demonstrators, which was something the authorities didn't expect," Di Corinto said.

A complete national shutdown has rarely been achieved, Di Corinto added. Nepal in 2005 and Burma in 2007 were rare exceptions, he said.

"Internet created a more cosmopolitan public opinion, interested in dialogue and in discovering alternative lifestyles. People found they weren't alone in criticizing the regimes. It affected the middle classes, who were themselves connected to the people in power," Di Corinto said in an interview.

Di Corinto attended the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005 as a reporter for the left-wing daily Il Manifesto. It provided an opportunity for contact between Western visitors, particularly Italians, and local bloggers and democracy activists, opening up the country to modern communications.

"The Tunisians were very hospitable. They saw us as cousins," Di Corinto said. Even President Ben Ali was in favor of the process of technological modernization and had his own page on Facebook, with 120,000 followers, he said."To suggest that we prepared the country for what has happened now sounds wild, but it's not wrong. Those exchanges created a different public opinion, ready for change," Di Corinto said.The IT expert said the idea of an Internet Bill of Rights was proposed by an Italian Green Party senator, Fiorello Cortiana, and proved particularly important.

"It created a breach. It was an important moment for Africa," Di Corinto said.The appeal for the Bill of Rights was signed by Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons, and Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, as well as by the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, his country's culture minister at the time, and by David Byrne of the Talking Heads. But the overwhelming majority of the initial signatories were Italian.Like Di Corinto, Cortiana also believes the Tunis summit prepared the ground for today's democratic revolutions.

"It was a seed planted in fertile ground, even though it wasn't the only one," Cortiana, who now works for the regional administration in Milan, said in a telephone interview. "I'm proud to have planted it."

Many people opposed the choice of Tunis as the location for the summit precisely because the government was not democratic, but Cortiana disagreed. "It was a great decision to hold it there. I told people that in the name of freedom we had to go there to plant a seed, an element of restlessness. It gave people a different view on things," he said.

Cortiana said the three most important things to come out of the summit were a press conference with the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, the call for an Internet Bill of Rights, and the opening of a cybercafe in the Tunis Casbah that enabled ordinary Tunisians to participate in the debate.Both Cortiana and Di Corinto acknowledge the risk that the Middle East's democratic revolutions could be hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists, simply because they are often better organized than other opposition groups.

"The risk certainly exists in those countries, but the digital and interactive dimension can be a very powerful antidote. The United States is coming to realize that the net can export democracy much more effectively than the army," Cortiana said.

"The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century, the largest that has ever been known. Interactivity is what makes it different, and that is really the key," he said. "The disintermediation of the net creates the circumstances under which knowledge can be shared and ideas freely exchanged.

"Ben Ali was brought to power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup engineered, at least in part, by the Italian secret services. So it is perhaps appropriate that Italians should have played a role in the process that led to his ouster.

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