Information & Communication Technology

How should Internet and Phone Companies respond in Egypt?

01 February 2011

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

The explanation Vodafone offered for its decision to switch off its mobile telephone network in Egypt last Friday - that it had no other choice except to comply with the governmental demand - was straight from the text-book. The problem is, human rights discourse, including the idea of corporate responsibility to respect human rights, has moved on from that explanation.

The state is bigger than the corporation, and when the state sets rules, companies must comply. And that is as it should be in normal situations, Egyptian history has resonated with such an experience - think back to the Suez crisis of 1956 and the anachronistic decision of Britain and France to seize control when the Egyptian state asserted its sovereignty.

But the events of the last week in Cairo are not the Suez crisis; they are in some ways similar to what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. Companies may have no interest in the romantic narrative of People Power. But there is a serious question companies doing business in Egypt face: when they comply with the law, what are they complying with, and in the process, are they being complicit? And if so, with what?

Steps Vodafone could have taken

One argument made in mitigation is that services were restored the following day, which the company may argue meant only a temporary disruption. Vodafone explained its decision to comply with the instructions of the Egyptian Government by saying it had no practical or legal alternative, and contractually it could not oppose. That may or may not be the case, for its contract is not in the public domain. But there is a range of steps Vodafone and other companies which received the directive (besides Vodafone/Raya, other implicated companies are Link Egypt, Telecom Egypt, and Etisalat Misr) could have considered:

  • Ask the state to provide instructions in writing;

  • Ask the state to explain the rationale;

  • Argue its own case - and responsibility to customers - to provide uninterrupted services;

  • Provide the legal basis and rationale to consumers and investors for suspending services;

  • Provide sufficient warning to customers; and,

  • Consider withdrawing operations, if forced to act in ways that undermine its responsibility to respect human rights.

Global Network Initiative (of which Vodafone or other companies in Egypt are not members). Participating in such initiatives is a good start - a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Nothing in Vodafone's statement suggests it went through any of these steps. (If it did, it acted with incredible speed, which does not suggest that the company undertook adequate due diligence before taking such a severe step. Companies should undertake due diligence as part of their responsibility to respect human rights under the UN Framework of business and human rights, which comprises the state duty to protect, corporate responsibility to respect, and applying remedies where gaps exist.)

Rather, it shows that the state made a demand and the company complied, virtually instantly.

Not just Vodafone

This is not to pick on Vodafone alone. Ericsson operates in Sudan, and has said it offers an enabling technology that empowers people. That it does - but mobile telephony also empowers the state to monitor dissidents.

Motorola provided wireless equipment to the police force in China - which can help the police rush and provide emergency assistance - but, as Human Rights Watch has argued, it can also help surveillance.

Yahoo! cooperated with the Chinese, and provided details of journalist Shi Tao, who had published information on the Internet that China wanted suppressed. (What Shi Tao had publicised would be considered a state secret only in a closed society like China's).

As the WikiLeaks episode has shown, credit card companies, service providers and others have stopped offering services that assist or benefit WikiLeaks's operations, even though no Government - not even the United States - formally asked them to do so.

And yet, encouragingly, when China-based computers began hacking into email accounts of dissidents and others, Google said enough was enough, and stopped voluntarily censoring its search engine, and refused to accede to Chinese demands. Not all American companies have acceded to Bush administration demands to turn over client information in the past. These cases show the wealth of experience information technology and telecommunications firms have amassed in recent years in dealing with states. Indeed, states do have to balance safety, security, and liberty, but their human rights obligations require them to err on the side of liberty. Instead, the states err, and claim to act to preserve stability - and companies comply.

Technology - good or evil?

Technology can be liberating. But it can also have negative consequences for human rights. Evegny Morozov, expert on the politics of the Internet at Georgetown University shows in his new book "The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate the World" how technology is value-neutral, and can be applied for good purposes or evil (and withdrawn for either reason).

Here's what mobile phone companies should think. Their services of course help farmers find out the price of the crop in distant markets and connect people across vast distances. But they also allow daughters and sons caught up in a political demonstration, in which they may not have taken part, to reassure their parents that they are safe.

They let peaceful demonstrators warn those behind them to take another route, if the police have turned brutal. And they let leaders send multiple messages to followers to desist from violence. They also allow people to take photographs, even shoot videos, of how law enforcement officials behave.

The world knows what happened to Neda Soltan (the brave Iranian woman who was killed during demonstrations) because someone filmed it and posted the video on the Internet. All these activities enable support for human rights.

Following orders

By switching off the mobile network, Vodafone has possibly aided and abetted a regime which did not want people to stay in touch with one another, talk to one another, comfort their loved ones, or warn one another, about what was going on. Instead, it took sides, and may have ended up assisting the state in establishing control.

In so doing, companies raise the risk of being complicit. Complying with the law is essential. But when domestic laws are applied in ways that undermine international human rights standards, companies have to think hard what it means and ask tough, probing questions. And they should push for answers before complying. And at times, they must avoid complicity, if they know, or should have known, that their compliance is sought as a prelude to a crackdown and human rights abuses.

The Nuremberg Trials after World War II showed that "We were following orders" is a very poor rationale, and often leads to horrendous decisions.

Update: (04 Feb.) Since I wrote this blog on Monday, the situation in Egypt has escalated. Vodafone has now admitted that it electronically distributed controversial text messages from pro-government entities en masse.

While there is no evidence directly linking those messages to the violence perpetrated by pro-Government loyalists who turned up at Tahrir Square and used force and violence against peaceful demonstrators, we know the messages were sent, and it is reasonable to assume that some of the attackers may have received such messages. And it is just as reasonable to remember that phone service providers had shut down services to subscribers on government orders only a few days earlier. What if such an instruction was handed down again?

In other words, in a political conflict, companies have assisted mobilisation of people for one side, and prevented access to communication, to the other, though not in that order.

To be sure, Vodafone says it did so under compulsion; and of course, Vodafone has a responsibility towards the safety and security of its own staff in Egypt. But it should avoid steps that harm others. Extractive companies that have staff to protect have learned the hard way that they cannot compromise fundamental freedoms of communities, to allude to a phrase from the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights.

Vodafone also says that it allowed the text messages to be sent because it would have been "technically difficult" to reboot the network from a forced shutdown. That is for technical experts to clarify: but once again, the company's rationale shows it has not sufficiently foreseen the human rights consequences of its actions. What is more valuable: the invested capital and the technology of the network, or the lives lost as a result of the clashes between pro-government loyalists (many of whom may have received these text messages) and anti-Government demonstrators?

Until the company begins reflecting on this, it is likely to continue compounding mistakes. And it may find it harder to explain its compliance with the government when it is headed by someone supported by the demonstrators at Tahrir Square.

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