Access: Inserting human right into telecoms one company at a time

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Lawyers argue in court that the shutdown of mobile networks in January during the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak has cost losses in lives. One New York based non-profit is seeking to assure a similar trajectory is not repeated.

Access, was founded in the wake of the 2009 Iranian post-election crackdown upon the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the internet and other forms of technology. Equipped with teams of digital activists and civil society groups, the group promotes globally for digital rights as well as provides policy recommendations to governments and telecommunication corporations.

Vodafone, who has been operating in Egypt since 1998 and whose Egyptian operations are partially owned by Telecom Egypt, was one of three operators that shutdown their services late January.

Last month Access, who holds stock in Vodafone, attended the annual shareholders meeting in London. Executive Director of Access, Brett Solomon posed the question: "How prepared are you for the future crises that are sure to happen in the 70+ countries in which you operate?”

Over 8,000 people from 85 countries signed a petition facilitated by Access that sought to instill accountability between service providers like Vodafone and the individuals in these countries.

When asked of the results of Access presence at the meeting Solomon answered, “We had direct conversations with the leadership of the company, demanding that they prepare for any future crisis. Now it is time for the company and the sector, having seen the crisis in Egypt, to take the necessary steps to ensure that they are human rights compliant.”

On Feb. 22 Vodafone released a statement concerning the act of shutting down mobile phone access saying, “Vodafone had legal advice to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had the legal power to require compliance. The sanctions for non-compliance with such an instruction are imprisonment and/or suspension of Vodafone’s operating license.”

Mubarak and Egypt’s former prime minister and interior minister were fined a total of LE 540 million ($91 million) in May for cutting mobile services, in a bid to disrupt mass protests across the country. The verdict had been contested.

Last week, Vodafone along with other service providers in Egypt issued a formal complaint with the National Communications Committee (NCC) presenting a report detailing their respective financial losses.

The crux of Access’ campaign is a ‘Telco Action Plan: 5 Steps Every Rights-Respecting Telco Should Take.’ The plan urges telecommunication firms operating in several countries to retain complete control over their network at all times, ensure that users always have access to it, and resist any efforts to give governments control over network infrastructure—either technically or through regulatory authority.

Naguib Sawiris, founder and former CEO of Egyptian mobile firm Mobinil, said earlier that the current legal system does not prevent similar communication cut-offs, in spite of amendments made to the existing order.

When asked of the plan Solomon said, “Customers and shareholders will expect Vodafone and its competitors to have learned lessons from the Egyptian shutdown and to take proactive steps to ensure that they are never again linked to the violent repression of peaceful protests for democracy.”

“I expect Vodafone to engage with the plan and begin steps towards implementation. It is what our members, their shareholders and their customers would expect.”

When asked of steps Vodafone Egypt is specially taking, Khaled Hegazy, PR Director of Vodafone Egypt said, “Article 57 of the Egyptian telecommunication law gives the government power to seize control of the mobile network.”

“As a company in Egypt we cannot violate the Egyptian law. We are lobbying and have submitted a proposal to amend the law. The interim government has confirmed this will be a new priority in the parliament.”

The Egyptian government used Vodafone services in order to issue SMS messages, which were deemed public service messages. One read: “Honest and loyal men: confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor.”

This type of messages were blamed for vilifying protesters and eventually fueling the violence that left 11 dead on Feb. 2 as pro-Mubarak mobs attacked the sit-in in Tahrir Square.

“Investors need to ensure that companies have — since Vodafone’s experience in Egypt — developed a response plan in the event that they face similar demands in other countries,” said Louise Rouse, Director of Engagement at FairPensions, an organization similar to Access.

In February 2010, Vodafone announced the signing of an agreement with the Libyan state-owned Al-Madar telecommunications company, allowing Vodafone to sell its services across the second most popular mobile network in the country. As the uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi endures and as the regime seeks to limit communications, the relevance of telecommunication companies seeking a degree of autonomy through the adoption a plan similar to the one provided by Access is becoming essential.

Solomon noted, “Any companies that are part-owners of telcos in Syria or Libya must see the writing on the wall as Vodafone should have seen in Egypt.”


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