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Vodafone Defends Egyptian Collaboration

Vodafone will meet rights activists to explain its co-operation with the overthrown Egyptian government

Vodafone will meet with human rights activists after coming under fire at its AGM yesterday for co-operating with the Egyptian government as it tried in vain to halt the recent uprising.

Lobby group Access was at the London meeting as a shareholder’s proxy and pressed Vodafone on its preparation for further, “inevitable” uprisings.

Propaganda machine

The group’s director Brett Solomon asked: “How prepared are you for the future crises that are sure to happen in the 70-odd countries in which you operate?

“Will you ensure that you are both able to protect your staff and the integrity of the network, but not in the position of having to once again shut down the internet or send pro-regime messages to your customers?”

Mass protests eventually toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but back in January, at the start of the popular movement, the government disabled up to 91 percent of the internet and did all it could to disrupt mobile phone use.

Vodafone was one of three operators that acquiesced to government demands to suspend services in some areas as it struggled to contain growing unrest.

The operators were also forced to send out pro-government text messages, such as “To every mother-father-sister-brother, to every honest citizen preserve this country as the nation is forever.”

Vodafone says it was the first operator to get back up and running in Egypt. Signal returned after about 24 hours but the internet remained down for days.

Sir John Bond, outgoing Vodafone chairman, agreed the company would meet with Access but said that any move to address the issue in the future would be fruitless without government co-operation.

“Respect for human rights forms part of our assessment of any market into which we move our operations,” he said.

“In Egypt employees risked their personal safety in a very volatile environment to keep the network up and running at a time when communication was more important than ever.”

Internet revolutions

Access was founded in the wake of 2009’s post-election violence in Iran and believes the internet and communications technology is critical to the safeguarding of human rights and political participation around the world.

It wants telecoms companies to agree crisis protocols with governments regarding how long networks can be shut down for, provisioning for emergency calls at all times, ensuring emails and calls are not intercepted and that networks are not used to spread propaganda.

Access highlighted China, Bahrain and Malaysia as three countries it is most concerned about.

The Bahraini government has already tried to force SIM card users to hand over their details. A reported 400,000 who did not were cut off, something with which Vodafone’s subsidiary in the country complied.

Social media, mobile communications and the internet have proved effective organisational tools for oppressed people around the world, from Iran to Tunisia.

But service providers and technology companies operating in countries with controlling or oppressive regimes often find themselves between a rock and hard place and there is oftne only one winner.

Vodafone joins a rapidly groing list of examples of this uncomfortable relationship.

Pakistan blocked Facebook and YouTube last year, Google quit China after claiming the government had hacked dissidents’ Gmail accounts and the Indian government is leaning on Research In Motion to provide access to customers’ messages and emails.