Telco Hall of Shame: Vodafone
12:39pm | 29 January 2013 | by Access Team, English
Inductee: Vodafone Group Plc
Network Size: 1.5 billion people.
Countries of Operation: Albania, Australia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, plus dozens of others through partners.
Finances: Reported over 11.5 billion Euro profits for this fiscal year.
HUMAN RIGHTS POLICY
Assisting law enforcement: "Operators often have strict obligations in their licenses, backed up by law, to comply with such demands - which can range from the interception of communications to the disclosure of data or interference with the functioning of a network. We understand the need for governments to act in critical situations that threaten public safety or national security, but this must be balanced with the responsibility to protect and respect peoples’ privacy and freedom of expression. We have a clear policy to ensure we minimise the impact on our customers when interacting with governments and assisting law enforcement."
Handing over data
Vodafone's global head of content standards, Annie Mullins, stated publicly that the company in 2008 turned over user data to the Egyptian government during the Mahalla anti-government strikes and protests, which led to the arrest of 22 people. Mullins provided this information during a Westminster eForum seminar, entitled 'Taming the Wild Web?', where she was discussing the risks of technology companies operating in dangerous regions or in countries with repressive regimes.
“For parts of the world that aren't subject to democracy, regulation can be used as a masquerade for state intrusion. … “Collecting IP addresses can help law enforcement identify a perpetrator. But if you then went to a country — say China — and collected a lot of data to prevent child abuse, that data could then be required for something else."
The Egyptian Shutdown
Less than two days after anti-government protests broke out on Jan. 25, 2011 Vodafone complied with an order from the Mubarak regime to shut down their networks, cutting off over 35 million customers in Egypt. The regime was seeking to prevent activists from using internet and cell phone services to organize protests.
Vodafone’s networks were used to send to its customers pro-regime SMS messages, reading “The Armed Forces asks Egypt's honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honour and our precious Egypt.” Vodafone filed an immediate complaint with the Egyptian government.
Access to emergency services were blocked during the blackout, resulting in lawsuits against the company from several groups, including the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
Vodafone responded to the shutdown by claiming they had no choice, and that by complying they were able to return services much sooner than if they had resisted. However, it was leaked a few months later that Vodafone began planning the technical details of the shutdown as early as 2008. Vodafone, in a 2012 sustainability report, claimed that they “acted responsibly in this challenging situation...”
At a July 2011 annual general meeting, then-Vodafone chairman Sir John Bond stated: “Any process to elaborate a new approach to human rights and communications must involve governments as well as industry and NGOs.” He later added, "Respect for human rights forms part of our assessment of any market into which we move our operations."
Vodafone has updated their Human Rights policy to acknowledge the tension between users’ right to privacy and freedom of expression and the obligation to follow local law in countries of operations. However, they do not produce regular transparency reports, making it difficult to determine whether this tension has been resolved or if they are practicing due diligence.
Vodafone conducted a review of government powers across their markets to ensure that their local teams were fully prepared for situations similar to the 2011 blackout, and has joined the Industry Dialogue on Privacy and Freedom of Expression.
Additionally, they contracted PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit the entire company on privacy, and published a detailed description of their policy on “law enforcement assistance.” “Assistance with law enforcement” is listed as a key priority in their 2012 sustainability report.
At their shareholder meeting in July 2012, Vodafone's Chairman, Gerard Kleisterlee, said the company had published a new corporate policy on privacy, but emphasized that, "at the end of the day, it's the authorities that determine the legal obligations," referencing "local parliaments, local regulation, local politicians," rather than human rights norms, international law, or company policies. Notably, the company's highest office-holder could not, or chose not to, articulate Vodafone's own policy, and even contradicted it.
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