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.