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Vodafone in Egypt: How tech companies can uphold, not violate, human rights

In carrying out the policies of repressive regimes, multinational telecommunications companies can violate international standards for human rights. Joining a global network committed to ethical uses of technology would help these corporations uphold, rather than undermine, those rights.

By Luke Allnutt / February 22, 2011



Prague, Czech Republic

In recent years, we have put corporations under greater scrutiny. We don’t buy shoes if they were made in Asian sweatshops. We boycott companies whose practices contribute to the destruction of the rainforest. Consumers expect to be satisfied with the service, but they also want to be reassured that the company providing the service has not harmed others. We should expect the same high standards from technology companies.

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Uprisings throughout the Arab world, especially in Egypt, have brought to light the role that multinational telecommunications companies play in the hands of repressive regimes. Western technology giants are increasingly finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to comply with local laws that might not correspond with international rights norms. But in a wired world, Internet access is increasingly seen as a fundamental human right – and the gatekeepers of those rights are not just governments, but corporations.

IN PICTURES: Top 10 countries that say Internet access is a basic right

Vodafone's role in Egypt

For five days during the recent uprising in Egypt, the Egyptian Internet and mobile telecommunications were blacked out. The details are still murky about how the authorities managed the shutdown, but accounts indicate that on Jan. 27, the Egyptian government asked the country’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to switch off their services. Two of those companies were the British-based Vodafone, which runs a joint venture with the state-controlled Telecom Egypt, and France Telecom, which runs Mobinil in a joint venture with an Egyptian concern, Orascom Telecom Holding.

In a statement, Vodafone said that it was obliged to comply with Egyptian law, and the authorities could shut down the network without its consent anyway. Several rights groups, including Amnesty International, have since been critical of Vodafone’s decision to pull the plug.

When the Internet and phone services were restored, Vodafone got into hot water once again, allowing its network (technically closed to regular users at the time) to be used to send out pro-Mubarak text messages. One of the messages called on “Egypt’s loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt.” The “traitors” and “criminals” were presumably those camped out in Tahrir Square. Vodafone has said that it was obliged to send the messages under “emergency powers provisions of the Telecoms Act” and has protested to the authorities.

Local governments vs. international rights

Regardless of where the blame lies, Vodafone’s experience in Egypt is a good case study of the types of pressures multinational technology and telecommunications companies will find themselves up against as states assert their sovereign rights over information, often in order to limit freedom of expression or invade their citizens’ privacy. It’s an awkward situation for these companies: Upholding a certain government’s policies puts these companies in local compliance, but can also conflict with international standards for human rights.

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