Major internet services have been shut down in Egypt and Morocco, violating the principle of Network Neutrality and the fundamental rights of people throughout the region. These worrying measures come in the lead-up to the fifth anniversary of the uprising in Egypt, which thrived on the open internet — until it was shut down.
Yesterday, Morocco’s three telecommunications companies shut off access to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) on mobile networks like WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype. The telcos, Maroc Telecom, Meditel, and Inwi, justified blocking these VoIP services by claiming that the services violate Moroccan regulations. Yet this act of network discrimination seems designed to enrich the telcos, and hurt the VoIP companies, at the expense of ordinary users and their rights. Barred from using VoIP services, the thinking goes, people would turn to using services provided by the telcos, such as services for instant messaging, text messaging, or sharing photos and videos.
Last week, Etisalat also shut down Egypt’s access to Free Basics, Facebook’s zero-rated internet services offering. This restriction appears to have been requested by the government, and forms a pattern of abuse meant to silence dissent in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the 2011 uprising and the fall of the Mubarak regime on January 25th. Journalists are being arrested for doing their jobs and exercising their right to free expression: seeking, receiving, and imparting information, on and off-line. These actions by the government demonstrate backsliding on its commitments to protect human rights and are chilling free expression.
These two restrictions share a common, negative impact on freedom of expression. Every type of shutdown represents a disproportionate restriction on access to information, with repercussions such as blocking emergency services, disrupting business, and cutting people off from other resources online. The shutdowns are also both linked to Etisalat. It owns a majority stake in Maroc Telecom, Morocco’s biggest telco.
Etisalat’s record on human rights
Unfortunately, this is not much of a surprise. In the Ranking Digital Rights project’s new Corporate Accountability Index, Etisalat scored the overall lowest of any telecommunications company, and with good reason. The company has failed to make any meaningful commitments to uphold privacy and freedom of expression. Etisalat has not made public statements about its network management practices or Net Neutrality in the company’s home country, the United Arab Emirates, where the government owns a large stake of the company. On network security, Etisalat received zero credit in the Index, because it discloses nothing about its standards for encryption and security in its products and services. It is little wonder that Free Basics, an encrypted service, did not last more than a few months on Etisalat’s networks in Egypt.
The company has a long track record of failure to uphold digital rights. Etisalat shut down the internet in Egypt in 2011, along with other telcos Orange and Vodafone. However, unlike those companies, Etisalat did not appear to learn from the experience: Etisalat did not join the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on free expression and privacy, nor did it respond to Human Rights First when questioned about the incident. In Morocco, the company has previously shut down Viber, a VoIP service.
While telcos may be unhappy that VoIP companies make a profit from their customers, that is no justification for unilaterally shutting off services for anti-competitive purposes, or charging customers twice for the same service. When telcos actively prevent access to specific content and applications through commercial discrimination, they effectively become gatekeepers of the internet. This harms innovation, reducing the incentive and potential for new players to enter the market.
More importantly, these latest shutdowns in Egypt and Morocco fall right in line with Etisalat’s silence and capitulation with government requests to violate human rights. Yet telcos, like other businesses, have a responsibility to respect human rights and jointly remedy abuses, as recognized in the Ruggie “Protect, Respect, Remedy” Framework and the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights.
We urge Etisalat to:
- stop blocking services in Egypt and Morocco;
- publish any orders for blocking that it has received in Egypt;
- push back on government requests that infringe human rights; and
- reach out to civil society to begin the process of improving its policy commitments, transparency, and accountability.
What happens now? Moroccans fight for their rights
Moroccans are lifting their voices to fight for their right to free expression. They launched multiple petitions on Change.org and Avaaz immediately after the three leading telcos shut off access to VoIP services. Thousands of people have already signed the petitions, which advise the national telecommunications regulator to investigate the blocking, and which also call on telcos directly to end their illegal restrictions.
Wherever they take place, internet shutdowns are a violation of human rights and must be stopped. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be preparing to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian Uprising and the region’s movement that inspired the world.