ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

What Role Have Multinationals Played in Egypt’s Communication Shutdown?

When the Egyptian government created a partial communications blackout on Thursday, shutting Internet and cell-phone service, it asked for the cooperation of foreign mobile phone companies. UK-based Vodafone complied, saying it had no choice but to cut service.

In a statement issued Saturday, Vodafone said the Egyptian government would have been able to shut the network itself anyway, all within the bounds of Egyptian law. Mobinil, another major provider, which is owned in part by France Telecom, also complied.

Did they have any choice?

"We don't know," said Cynthia Wong, of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Certainly it shows how much leverage governments have over mobile phone companies in particular."

Other reports suggest the government, at least in Egypt, likely could have shut down the system whether providers cooperated or not. The website Computerworld reported that while there is no "kill switch" that would shut all service, a government could physically sabotage equipment or worse. As Computerworld put it, "a government that licenses a mobile authority can threaten violence to individual cell towers or backhaul networks, or to employees working for the carrier."

Vodafone may have been implying that Egypt would do just that if the company didn't comply, saying a government shutdown would have meant a longer shutdown. Computerworld also reported that France Telecom withdrew about 20 foreign employees from the country.

While governments have implemented partial shutdowns of telecommunications before, in Iran and China, the scale of Egypt's actions are unprecedented, Wong said. And with activists increasingly organizing through texts and Twitter, she said, more countries are likely to do the same in the future.

Multinational corporations may have little recourse when a government decides to shut down all service, but a number of companies, including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! are trying to organize against such intrusions through the Global Network Initiative. The group, which includes advocacy organizations and investors as well, says increasing pressure from governments has led them to come up with a set of guiding principles to "protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy" in the telecom sector. It aims to help companies come up with a plan for how to deal with situations like what's happening in Egypt before it occurs.

With interruptions of service in Egypt, it's hard to tell how widespread and successful the crackdown has been. There was at least one report of BlackBerry users finding a way around the blocks. One Internet service provider reportedly held out for days before shutting down by Monday. And while cell service had supposedly resumed after the weekend, CNN reports the government has shut it again temporarily.

It's also unclear whether the Egyptian government had a legal basis for its actions, as Vodafone claimed. But Wong said that if even if there were some law that allowed the crackdown, it would run counter to international human-rights principles.

"There are a set of human-rights norms around when governments can restrict free flow of information," she said. "I would say this is pretty close to a violation."

Update: Egyptian internet and cell providers reportedly began restoring service Wednesday morning, at least in parts of the country.

In essence, many of the world’s multinationals view enabling corruption and the oppression of the world’s peoples as “just business”.

“Just business”...that catch-all for “Hey, it may be horrible and immoral behavior, but it generates profit - and that is my job.”.

lollll….just doing their job….them, and the guards at the camps, and…

In essence, many of the world’s multinationals view enabling corruption and the oppression of the world’s peoples as “just business”.

“Just business”...that catch-all for “Hey, it may be horrible and immoral behavior, but it generates profit - and that is my job.”.

lollll….just doing their job….them, and the guards at the camps, and war criminals from time immemorial, and…

Kevin A. McDonald

Feb. 2, 2011, 10:32 p.m.

Good for Global Network Initiative. Companies have no business opposing the will of the people.

Microsoft, Google and Yahoo coming together. I highly doubt it is only for freedom of speech. Large companies don’t do things like this without thinking it through and good of the people is usually not a criteria, it is more of a marketing angle.

It turns out turning off the entire network is a really bad idea anyway. Whilst the initial goal is stopping a very small number of people using the network to communicate, coordinate activities, and aggregate behavior…

all that happens is that turning off the network entirely annoys everyone. And that is likely to be the primary reason why the protests in Egypt dramatically escalated AFTER the networks were shut down. All of a sudden normal people - and offices, hospitals, etc - could not communicate, through no fault of their own. Before they were unengaged, watching by the sidelines as the ‘protesters’ did their thing. Now, you throw gasoline onto the fire and annoy EVERYONE.

So, lesson should be learned by future autocrats wishing to turn off the internet and cell phone network. It is not going to help - it will only make it worse - and you are going to have to turn it back on anyway :)
It is therefor

@mark turrell:  Not to mention that anybody who does a web search for “Make 2.4GHz parabolic mesh dishes from cheap but sturdy Chinese cookware scoops & a USB WiFi adaptor!” will soon realize that the results could be titled “How to roll your own metropolitan area backbone in two hours or less!”.

(I’d give URLs directly, but I occasionally forget that ProPublica doesn’t like that and your comment subsequently will disappear into the twilight zone of “Comment held for moderation”.)

Add a comment

Email me when someone responds to this article.