Two years from Tahrir, no progress on telcos and rights

Katherine Maher contributed to this post.

Two years ago today, protesters responded to a call for a “Day of Rage” by pouring into Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Thus began the first of the “Eighteen Days” of struggle to end then-president Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years in power.

Less than 48 hours after the protests began, Egyptian telecoms and ISPs complied with a order by the Mubarak regime to shut down their networks, ultimately removing Egypt from the global internet. This effort to prevent protesters from organizing and keep images and news of a government crackdown from spreading had an inverse effect, driving people to the streets and drawing the world’s attention to Tahrir Square.

Inside Egypt, protesters condemned the government, but on the outside attention focused on a different target: the internet and mobile network operators that complied with the regime’s arbitrary shutdown. This unprecedented action thrust the importance–and vulnerability–of internet and telecommunications networks into the global consciousness, and raised the question over corporate responsibility in the face of flagrant human rights violations by authoritarian regimes. Vodafone Egypt and MobiNil–two of the country’s three mobile network operators–are majority owned by companies based in France (Orange) and the UK (Vodafone International).

Faced with international outrage, Vodafone argued the company was merely complying with local law. Although this was true in a strict sense, the event catalyzed a movement to examine telco responsibilities under both local and international legal frameworks. Multinational telecoms struggle to balance their human rights responsibilities–as enshrined in the UN Ruggie Framework–with the realities of operating in politically oppressive environments.

In response to the events in Egypt, a group of global telecoms came together to form the “Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy,” with the purpose of common consultation on the development of best-practice rights-respecting policies for the industry. However, two years after the protests in Cairo, the Industry Dialogue has yet to release any principles or establish a permanent structure. Most embarrassingly, it does not even have a public website.

Meanwhile, internet and phone shutdowns have become an increasingly common tool for political repression. From the San Francisco Transit authority mobile network shutdown in 2011 to the Syrian internet blackout in November 2012, governments around the world are finding it convenient to disrupt activists by simply disconnecting them from the world.

Much of Access’ work includes consultations with telecoms, ISPs, and social media platforms to implement rights-respecting policies, and to ensure that companies cannot be pressured or bribed into abandoning us again. At first, the Industry Dialogue appeared to be take step in this direction–but following two years of inaction, and continued rights-violations around the world, it risks appearing as nothing more than a rights-washing exercise for multinational telecoms.

International telecoms, including those actively participating in the Industry Dialogue, continue to enter into new markets in countries without even the most basic policies in place to respect human rights. Scandinavian mobile network giant TeliaSonera is currently considering expanding operations into Burma, all while profiting off of cooperation with security forces in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Despite a declared adherence to guidelines and principles like the Ruggie Framework, global telecoms continue to trade respect for human rights for record profits.

Many industrialized nations are resistant to national blackouts, due to the number and diversity of their international ISPs, with direct connections out of the country. More often, it is countries with authoritarian governments–where the public space has been so diminished that the internet serves as the only real forum for the free exchange of information and ideas–that are most at risk, and most in need of telecommunications companies who have policies in place to keep them online.

Two years after Tahrir, more than 6 billion mobile subscribers continue to wait for the telecom industry and its Dialogue to deliver on long-promised policies. Inspired by the determination of the protesters in Egypt, and in recognition of their Eighteen Days that finally pushed international telecoms into dialogue on human rights, Access will spend the next eighteen days highlighting two years of telecom inaction and rights violations in our Telco Hall of Shame. At the end, we’ll ask you to help us select the worst of the offenders for a particularly special recognition.