Learning from Egypt’s Internet and Cellphone Shutdown | Human Rights First

I wrote about Egypt’s Internet shutdown and the Egyptian government’s surveillance capabilities in the book’s introduction and in the beginning of Chapter 4. One year later, human rights groups, companies, and academics have had a chance to study and analyze what happened last year, and are drawing some important lessons about the relationship between a country’s telecommunications and Internet infrastructure and political change.

Human Rights First has an important blog post about the lessons to be learned by foreign carriers like Vodafone who were compelled along with domestic companies to do the Egyptian government’s bidding. The post begins:

One year ago, in a failed attempt to cling to power, Hosni Mubarak’s doomed government activated his country’s kill switch and shut down the internet and phone system. It was an unprecedented and desperate move, and it backfired. Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square to raise their collective voices against the regime. But the image of the internet going dark was like the failing heartbeat of a dying patient. It pointed to a government losing its grip, and it raised all kinds of uncomfortable questions: about governmental authority over Egypt’s ICT sector; the responsibilities of private telecommunications and internet companies operating in Egypt and in similar authoritarian countries; and the expectations of customers who rely on ICT services. We at Human Rights First have been examining these questions for the past year and offer these observations about what happened and some suggestions for a way forward.

All governments have “kill switch” authority, that is, the authority to commandeer or suspend private communications networks, typically for reasons of national security or natural disaster. Some are more democratic, and have more independent judiciaries than others. But the temptation to use this authority can overwhelm even the most democratic societies. Reports that rioters in London used RIM messaging service to organize last August prompted the Prime Minister to threaten a clampdown on social media sites. Shortly thereafter, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system shut off cellphone service to one of its stations in an attempt to thwart a planned protest there.

In the case of Egypt, the government owns enough of the infrastructure to shut down the network with or without private cooperation. For the last year, we’ve had an ongoing dialogue with Vodafone, the largest telecommunications service provider in Egypt, about their reaction to the shutdown. Based on the information they’ve provided us, we’ve reached the following conclusions.

They are in sum:

  1. Egypt’s Transition to Democracy Isn’t Possible as Long as the Military Remains in Control of ICT Regulation.
  2. Without Effective Control of the Infrastructure, Taking Control of the Shutdown Process to Minimize its Impact is a Reasonable Course of Action.
  3. Even the Most Well-Intentioned Corporate Strategy Will Fall Short – In Execution and/or Perception – Unless Informed by Stakeholder Engagement.
  4. The Lack of Policies to Address Government Demands to Limit or Degrade Service Leaves Companies at Risk. To Avoid or Minimize these Risks Companies Should Work with Peers and Other Stakeholders, Such as the Global Network Initiative, to Elaborate Appropriate Strategies.

Read the full detailed explanation of HRF’s important conclusions here.

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Netizen Report: Fight for the Future Edition

By monashosh on Flickr

Meet Khaled Alaa Abdel Fattah, born last Tuesday to two Egyptian cyber-activists: mother Manal Bahey al-Din Hassan and father Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is currently in prison. Khaled is named after Khaled Said, the young man whose violent death at the hands of police in 2010 became a symbol and rallying point for activism that brought down the Mubarak regime earlier this year.”

Little Khaled was born as Internet-driven activism in another part of the world, Russia, is bringing a new generation of young people – many of whom had never participated in a protest beforeinto the streets to oppose election results that they believe to have been rigged in the ruling party’s favor. One blogger told TIME magazine that he risked reprisals by United Russia supporters to post flyers around Moscow on the eve of the election, calling on people to vote against them. One flyer said:

“One day, your child will ask you, Papa, what were you doing when the crooks and thieves were robbing our country blind?”

People like Alaa, Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi who was arrested on the Jordanian border last weekend, and Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who has been in hiding since February, are all fighting for a world in which their own children will be able to speak their minds and participate in opposition politics without going to prison. But what about the rest of us? To echo the Russian blogger’s question:

What are we doing to make sure that our children will even be able to use the Internet to fight for their rights speak truth to power?

The war for freedom and control of the Internet continues to rage. To get the full rundown, check out the latest Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy. Since September I have been working with the Global Voices team and several volunteers to publish these twice monthly updates on global developments related to the power dynamics between citizens, companies and governments on the Internet. You can even subscribe to them by e-mail here.