1-30-2012By Meg Roggensack
Senior Advisor, Business and Human Rights Initiative
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.
The authorities in Egypt have not yet addressed a fundamental threat to free expression – Egypt’s telecommunications regulator is government controlled and dominated by its security services. This means that the military government has an effective veto over decisions about the kill switch, as well as ongoing issues, such as the independence, integrity and stability of the telecommunications system as a whole. Users know that their entire digital life is subject to surveillance, and that content can be censored at will. The companies that operate the telephone networks under license are dependent on state controlled infrastructure. Though the terms of their license would permit them to invest in expanding the system to add infrastructure under their control, they have repeatedly and routinely been denied the official approval to do so.
The absence of an independent, transparent regulatory authority is a drag on the development of the ICT sector in Egypt and on Egypt’s economic development in general. Having seen the pressures and the manipulation to which Egyptian telcommunications service providers were subjected during last year’s protests, international investors (multinational corporations hold a substantial stake in each of Egypt’s three main telecom operators, Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat) are now conscious of the potential risk to their personnel and equipment, as well as to their reputations if they are forced to be complicit in the repressive practices of authoritarian governments.
Lesson One: Egypt’s Transition to Democracy Isn’t Possible as Long as the Military Remains in Control of ICT Regulation.
Both users and operators agree that reform of existing law, to ensure a more independent, transparent and credible regulator, is a priority. They can and should work more closely together to promote reform. But they should not have to do it alone. Foreign donor governments and international organizations should use their leverage to insist that the state and the security forces get out of ICT regulation.
Under the terms of their licenses, private operators are obliged to comply with Egyptian law. Compliance with Egyptian law as it is currently constituted puts companies in conflict with international standards regarding limitations on freedom of expression, which require due process protections and approaches that are narrowly tailored. As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state, where compliance with local law would conflict with international law, companies should interpret local law as narrowly as possible and consider mitigating strategies to address human rights concerns.
Vodafone Egypt took several steps to address this concern:
- The company worked to maintain service around Tahrir Square for as long as possible during the emergency shutdown.
- Company engineers worked to shortcut the start up protocols, which are time consuming, in order to restore service as quickly as possible.
Lesson Two: Without Effective Control of the Infrastructure, Taking Control of the Shutdown Process to Minimize its Impact is a Reasonable Course of Action.
The company did succeed in minimizing service curtailment, relative to competitors, and in providing support to enable customers to use their phones when service was restored at a time when banks were closed and ATMs were not functional, through providing free allowances, top off cards and additional temporary service centers.
Vodafone Egypt has well established relationships with various community groups in the country – for example, it supports an innovative and well-regarded adult literacy program targeting women – but doesn’t have an established program for engaging with a broader range of civil society stakeholders, including those actively engaged in advocating reform in laws governing the ICT sector Such a program would have enabled the company to communicate both its concerns and goals, and to obtain additional useful input from users, including civil society activists, before, during and after the shutoff. It would have enabled Vodafone Egypt to better explain its decision making process to users.
Lesson Three: Even the Most Well-Intentioned Corporate Strategy Will Fall Short – In Execution and/or Perception – Unless Informed by Stakeholder Engagement.
Vodafone Egypt struggled with its response to the Mubarak Administration’s demand that it send to all of its users text messages that were political and unattributed. They realized the implications that acquiescence to that demand would have on customer trust and on its own reputation. The company ultimately reached out to Vodafone UK and the US and UK governments for guidance. After sending several messages from the Mubarak regime, the company pushed back, insisting that the Mubarak government provide a public interest justification and identify the requesting agency or authority on the message. They received one additional request that aligned with these requirements, and then the requests ceased.
The vulnerability of the company to be compelled to serve as the mouthpiece of an authoritarian government is a stark reminder of the need for stronger legal safeguards to enable operators to function independently and for users to be able to rely on the integrity of information they receive through their communications devices.
Lesson Four: 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.
Vodafone Egypt is now advocating for changes to existing law. This is an extremely important step because the company’s leadership will help propel reform efforts. We have urged the company to reach out to civil society stakeholders to collaborate. They share some of the same broad goals, and in a more open society, civil society and companies will need to cooperate to influence government policy effectively. Civil society organizations can bring more transparency to both government and company policies.
As a first step, we recommend that the company, working with civil society, brief the newly elected legislators on the issue and the need for legal and regulatory reform. Going forward, we encourage the company to take a greater leadership role in fostering collaboration between industry and civil society to promote changes to the law that will circumscribe kill switch authority, place the regulator under civilian control and oversight, and minimize the dependence of the system on state infrastructure to promote greater opportunity for innovation and investment. We also encourage Vodafone Egypt to include its outreach to civil society organizations in Egypt involved in ICT issues in its regular public reporting on corporate responsibility initiatives.