For Immediate Release: February 3, 2011
Washington, DC – Human Rights First is pressing telecommunications companies and Internet providers operating in Egypt to share details about the circumstances in which the past week’s service blackout in Egypt took place. In letters sent to the companies, the organization is urging them to be transparent about government requests to interrupt communications services, how companies made decisions about responding to such requests, and what the company’s official policies are on communicating those decisions to the public. Ongoing developments, such as the Government of Egypt reportedly sending unattributed text messages over the Vodafone network, highlight the urgent need for transparency.
“Given the importance of the internet and mobile phone communications to economic, social and political life in our increasingly interconnected world – and the damage that is done to livelihoods and the enjoyment of basic freedoms for millions of people when governments interrupt that service – it is incumbent on companies to share information about the circumstances to which catastrophic interruptions in service have taken place,” wrote Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino in letters to seven Egyptian-based companies. “With a better understanding of the challenges facing companies and the reasoning behind your decision making processes, we hope to identify strategies for the ISP/telco sector and the United States and other governments to help avoid future widespread shutdowns of the type we are seeing in Egypt.”
According to Human Rights First, at least one company has disclosed publicly that it complied with the demands of Egyptian authorities and took its own steps to shut down services in Egypt as protests spread throughout the nation. Reports also indicate that the Egyptian government itself was in a position to directly shut down critical elements of internet and mobile phone communications. Now that service has been restored, there are news reports that that some parts of the system are being used by pro-government forces to organize violent actions, a fact that Human Rights First notes is hardly surprising given the nature of the Mubarak regime. This development is also all the more reason for greater transparency of company actions in the face of government pressures. In search of answers behind these troubling developments, Human Rights First wrote letters to the leaders of American University in Cairo, Etisalat, LinkDOTnet, NOOR Data Networks, Raya Telecom, Telecom Egypt and Vodafone.
Human Rights First has long worried about such drastic actions. Five years ago, the group joined with other human rights organizations and ISP/telco providers to confront the human rights challenges new communications technologies present and to develop principles to guide companies’ decision making. These challenges are particularly acute in environments where the rule of law is weak and where governments use their regulatory power to silence peaceful dissent, actions demonstrated by Egyptian authorities during this past week. Together with other stakeholders, the group created a set of principles to guide companies faced with government demands to curtail services in ways that may limit freedom of expression or privacy. Among the principles relevant to the current crisis in Egypt, participating companies agreed to:
- Respect and protect the freedom of expression of their users by seeking to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on the information available to users and the opportunities for users to create and communicate ideas and information, regardless of frontiers or media of communication.
- Respect and protect the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression, remove content or otherwise limit access to information and ideas in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.
In its letters, Human Rights First said it appreciated that companies providing infrastructure services such as ISPs/telcos are fundamentally more vulnerable to the actions of governments in whose territory they operate then those who offer services that are not geographically fixed. With that in mind, it asked the companies to disclose to Human Rights First whether the Egyptian government formally requested a curtailment of service, and if so, whether that request was based on a court order. It also asked the companies to answer a series of questions related to how it decided to terminate its services, how it dealt with informing users and what steps it has taken or will take to resume all services.
“When companies go it alone in facing government demands to curtail services, they are more vulnerable to pressure and may find themselves acting in ways that make them complicit in governments’ violation of fundamental rights. We believe there is an important role for both companies and governments to play in helping to promote Internet freedom and the global free flow of information. We look forward to your response to these questions, which should provide a first step toward understanding the challenges presented by events in Egypt and developing appropriate strategies to prevent and minimize these threats going forward,” Massimino concluded.
Read the letters here: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Egypt-Telecom-Letters.pdf.
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