The Dictator's Dilemma


North Africa is in chaos. Following on the heels of Tunisia's revolution, Egyptian citizens have taken to the streets in a massive show of anger and frustration with President Mubarak's 29 year rule. Don't miss the vivid pictures from the Boston Globe's The Big Picture.

People have been arguing about whether social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are relevant in real-world activism and organizing against authoritarians. Well, some new folks with very relevant opinions have weighed in on the topic: the autocrats themselves.

In Tunisia and Egypt as protests have swelled the regimes have moved to cut off or control access to Facebook and Twitter. By doing so, they're making things harder for themselves as well - it's the "Dictator's Dilemma." If people love a certain service and you take it away, you may be limiting their organizing potential, but you're also pissing them off, and getting people involved who might otherwise have been untouched.

Egypt started with blocks on Twitter and then Facebook, but then people turn to other tools. SMS was shut off next.

After midnight local time, it appears that Egyptian authorities cut off all access to the Internet. Other reports suggest it's now back up.

The government could go so far as to cut all phone service, dramatically impacting everyone's ability to organize and communicate - and outraging the entire populace.

Actions like this also attract media attention as a vivid demonstration of the shaky situation and the lengths to which the government needs to go to maintain control.

Best tweet of the day on the topic from @JohnWonderlich: "shutting down the Internet not a good way to get young people to stay home and inside..."

It's a wild time. I don't know if Mubarak will still be in control in 24 hours. He may be facing a Tiananmen choice - the ultimate version of the Dictator's Dilemma.

For more, follow Jillian York with the Berkman Center. She really knows both the region and topic.