Mariam Kirollos to visit Netopia on Human Rights Day

Long-term Netopia-readers will recall Mariam Kirollos’s thought-provoking piece “The Revolution Beyond 140 Characters” from last summer. While the rest of us were following the so-called Arab Spring from the comfort of our Tweetdecks, Mariam Kirollos risked her physical safety on Tahrir Square for “bread, freedom and social justice”. The threat was not only from regime troops and hired thugs, but also from other protesters. Women were particularly exposed to danger. We were told that social media made the Arab Spring happen, but Mariam Kirollos reminds us that a lot of the people who put their lives at stake in the revolution are illiterate. Only a minority had internet access and a tiny fraction of that minority had social media accounts. So while we in the West pride ourselves on providing the tools for liberation, those who did the heavy lifting had completely different circumstances. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, in protest against a government official who confiscated the fruit he was selling as a street vendor. It was his sacrifice as martyr, that set the Arab spring in motion.

For all the talk of freedom of speech and democracy, the internet companies first loyalty will always be to the profit of its share-holders, not such liberal ideas. So argued Belarusian-American writer Evgeny Morozov in his 2011 book The Net Delusion – How Not to Liberate the World(Penguin). There are many cases to this point: Cisco built China’s “Great Firewall”, Ericsson provided Syria’s al-Assad with surveillance equipment, Nokia Siemens helped the Iranian regime crackdown on dissidents, TeliaSonera helped Belarus secret police hunt down protesters and many more examples. Technology can be used for good and for bad, but dictators are brought down by people, not technology.

Today almost four years have passed since the Arab Spring first started and the democracy movement has lost much of its momentum. New horrors have emerged. What is the role of social media today in Egypt? This and many other questions, Mariam Kirollos will explain in her visit to Netopia’s breakfast meeting in Brussels on Human Rights Day, December 10. Please join us!