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

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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.

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