Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Until Google shut down its search services on the Chinese mainland last year after a cyber attack targeting rights activists, the company had self-censored Chinese search results for years.

With the world’s netizens increasingly using services like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, and with much more information living in the cloud, many foreign governments aren’t overjoyed by the prospect of their citizens’ data living, not readily accessible, on some Western server. RIM, the company that makes Blackberries, for example, has butted heads with the governments of India and the United Arab Emirates, which want access to RIM’s encrypted email and messaging services.

Western technology companies have had a checkered history in dealing with repressive regimes. In 2005, a Chinese activist was imprisoned for 10 years after Yahoo China provided his personal details to the government. During Iran’s post-election unrest in 2009, it was revealed that Nokia had supplied Iran with mobile surveillance technology, which it used to clamp down on protesters.

Other examples are less clear-cut, but still raise moral and ethical questions. For example, should telecom companies sell GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) equipment with “legal intercept” capabilities to repressive regimes? The data (call records or even a user’s location) can be accessed in criminal investigations but it can also be used to find and convict pro-democracy protesters. Or should Narus, a Silicon Valley company owned by Boeing, sell Egypt deep packet inspection technology, which enables the authorities to monitor its netizens’ viewing habits?

Companies should join global network

To help navigate these choppy waters and to prevent future corporate complicity in shutdowns or excessive monitoring, a good start would be for technology companies to join the Global Network Initiative (GNI) – a loose conglomerate of technology companies, rights groups, academics, and investors. The GNI provides a framework to help companies “respect and protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users in responding to government demands, laws and regulations, [and] integrate into their decision making and culture responsible policies and procedures.”

Member companies also “commit to an independent assessment process focused on how they are implementing the GNI’s principles within their organization.”

The GNI is crucial, but still desperately needs more companies – such as Twitter and Facebook – to join. (To date, only Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have signed up.) A critical mass of companies would not only help enshrine universal standards of moral and ethical behavior but would also present a united front to the world’s repressive regimes.

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These companies bear a responsibility not just to uphold human rights, but to their consumers. They, at least, should make sure they are on the right side of history.

Luke Allnutt is the editor in chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s English website and blogs at Tangled Web. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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