Egypt’s recent internet shut-down and Australia’s National Broadband Network have one thing in common: ultimately their success or failure depended — or will depend — not on technology but on people.

“[Egypt] was a fascinating episode, intense,” said Tim Wu, US-based telecommunications policy advocate and author of The Master Switch: the rise and fall of information empires. “It’s one of the most interesting experiments we’ve had in trying to deeply control the internet.”

Both Nepal and Burma have previously turned off the internet during political crises, but those countries are relatively disconnected from the world economy. Egypt has a modern, connected economy, and plenty of internet providers.

“What was shocking and fascinating was the ease in which they shut down the internet,” Wu told this week’s Patch Monday podcast. “What was also fascinating is that eventually they decided to put it back up, even though obviously it’s going to make organising easier. What’s so interesting to me about the back-on is that obviously there was some calculation there that the ongoing costs of having the internet shut down were just too much.”

Egypt, says Wu, is a good reminder of a point sometimes forgotten: the internet is ultimately physical, and the people who operate it have bodies that are vulnerable to arrest and punishment.

“If you can threaten somebody, you can just say, ‘Hey, turn off the internet, and if you disobey you’ll be put in jail’. You don’t need any fancy technology. All you need is a gun,” he said.

Similarly, Wu emphasises that for the NBN, while the theory matters “a little bit”, what really matters is the ability of humans to carry out the plan: “A government-run centralised network … can be fantastic if the people running it are fantastic… A private network can be fantastic if the company running it is any good. If the company running it is an incompetent monopolist who has no interest in the internet, it’s going to be terrible.”

Wu described the NBN as “daring” and “visionary”.

“If it works out the way it’s supposed to I think it’ll be fantastic and will set a model for the rest of the world,” he said. “It’ll make Australia famous for something other than your athletes and Ned Kelly,” he said. “I think the countries that go forward with these kinds of things are going to have the advantage in the 21st century and so I say congratulations to Australia.”

Wu dismisses comparisons with America’s lower level of public investment in broadband and concerns that spending billions of government dollars went against free market principles.

“Give me a break! You see America, it’s all talk here, because I mean how many hundreds of billions does the American government spend on roads? The military infrastructure built by the United States is massive,” he said.

“The truth is, the United States spends enormous monies on public infrastructure. They just spend it in ways that are different from other countries, and spend comparatively little on communications for reasons that are completely mysterious to me.”

*Tim Wu is speaking at the Digital Directions 2011 conference in Sydney on March 3

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey