Disruptive Power by Taylor Owen

By Sybile Penhirin

Has technology altered power balances in the international affairs space? Are activist groups and individuals more empowered because of new digital tools? And in which ways are established powers, such as states, using technology to make sure they are still in control? These were some of the main questions Taylor Owen discussed at Tuesday’s Tow Center event, launching Owen’s new book Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age.


Owen was then joined by three panelists to debate on these issues: Elmira Bayrasli, the founder of the World Policy Institute’s Global Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and the co-founder of Foreign Policy, Interrupted; Eben Moglen, a Law professor at Columbia Law School and the founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center, and Carne Ross a former British Diplomat and the Executive Director of a non-profit diplomatic advisory group called Independent Diplomat.

Owen started by analyzing the situation following Mubarak’s crackdown on the Internet during Egypt’s uprisings in January 2011. He pointed out that even though Internet had been turned off, various aspects of communications came back online. For instance, Telecomix, a net activist group which aims to promote freedom of expression via technology, opened back spaces of communications in Cairo.

“They set up dial-up modem lines around the city, they brought in a bunch a radio enthusiasts to set up frequency conversations between activist groups, they used fax machine networks around the city to send leaflets and tools for getting online,” Owen detailed.

“When you’re looking at what happened at Tahrir Square,” Elmira Bayrasli later said during the panel, “I think Mubarak shutting down the Internet was actually a pivotal point,” she said, adding that before that moment, the voices of people gathering of Tahrir square were dying down.


Other states, such as Syria, did not turn off the Internet to block communications, but rather used it as a massive monitoring tool, Owen explained. But once again, activists got around the obstacles.

In the case of Syria, Telecomix, provided activist groups with surveillance circumvention tools, such as encrypted browsers. They also sent mass emails to Syria with guidelines on how to communicate and broadcast their voices. Anonymous, the hacktivist group, also supported Syrian activists by taking down websites, tapping Syria’s digital infrastructures and going after financial institutions that were supporting the Assad regime, Owen said.

“We have this new layer of actors, we can debate how powerful they are, but this new layer of actors doesn’t fit comfortably in our categories of international actors. They are not states, not corporations, they are not NGOs,” Owen said, adding these actors shared particular fluency in technology and cybertools.  Of course, these technologies are not only available to activist groups and individuals but also to states who have found ways to adapt to the situation. The NSA vast surveillance program is one example of the state’s unchecked power via technology.

But to govern on that massive amount of data, institutions need to be able to store it and draw meaning from it. And this isn’t always possible, Owen said, giving the example of a surveillance program in Afghanistan that the US had shut down because they couldn’t store the data.


However, states have been trying to push back by controlling the entire network.  States are very clever, well informed and they are able to adapt to circumstances very quickly, Carne Ross noted during the panel.

“In China, the communist party has adapted itself, it hasn’t reformed itself, it hasn’t become more democratic it has simply changed the way it looks,” Ross said, “This is my worry about it, that actually we are dealing with an entity, a government which is far more intelligent and far more adaptable that we give it credit for.”

“At the end of the day,” Ross noted, “power is about who controls the territory and who controls the people in that territory.”

Additionally, Bayrasli pointed out that, while social media played a crucial role in the Arab Spring uprisings, these movements lacked clear leadership and plans and therefore did not entirely succeed. “The Facebook revolution and the Twitter revolutions did not go anywhere and the state did come in,” she said.

“What actually has happened is that the state, or the governments, or the American empire have imposed a very deceitful conception, which, with no bad intentions of any kind we’re helping them to achieve,” Eben Moglen said.

Watch Owen’s presentation and the full debate on the video below.


Sybile Penhirin is a reporter living in New York City.  She was awarded the Henry N. Taylor Award when she graduated from Columbia Journalism School in May 2014.  Sybile usually covers local news but is also interested in the on-going transformations of the media landscape.