Mubarak's disastrous kill switch

 

Recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have again thrown into sharp focus both the use of social networking by demonstrators and the increasing inability of governments to control the free flow of information. Andrew Rosthorn investigates.

President Mubarak’s decision to cut Egypt off the Internet between January 27 and February 2, is believed to have cost his country at least ninety million dollars.

No mainstream nation has attempted to cut communications on such a scale since the anti-Gorbachev Soviet coup plotters were outwitted by Russian journalists with fax machines in 1991.

The economic consequences for Egypt can be understood from the names on the client list of the Noor Group, the last of the networks closed down by the ‘kill switch’: Toyota, ExxonMobil, Hyatt, Coca-Cola, the Egyptian stock exchange and the American University in Cairo.

Yet repressive tactics, which worked previously in isolated states like Iran and Myanmar, were soon outwitted by Californian whizz kids linking the Egyptians back into the dynamic world of Facebook, Twitter and the photo sharing website Flickr.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has estimated that blocking telecomm services cut economic output by 3 or 4 per cent and was losing revenue at 18 million US dollars a day. The Egyptian stock exchange fell 5%. Total Gulf stock exchange losses were evaluated at fifty billion US dollars.

Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at the Massachusetts-based worldwide security firm Arbor Networks, said, ‘While other countries, including Iran and Myanmar, have experienced telecommunication disruptions following social unrest in the past, the Egyptian outage represents a new Internet milestone.

‘For the region, Egypt enjoys one of the largest and most robust Internet infrastructures with four major national providers and a hundred or more smaller consumer and web hosting providers.
Put simply, we have never seen a country as connected as Egypt completely lose Internet connectivity for such an extended period.
As a sign of the growing importance of social media and web sites, it is telling that the block on Egyptian telecommunications largely focused on the Internet. Mobile and fixed line service returned earlier in the week.’

Yet repressive tactics, which worked previously in isolated states like Iran and Myanmar, were soon outwitted by Californian whizz kids linking the Egyptians back into the dynamic world of Facebook , Twitter and the photo sharing website Flickr.

In an uncanny coincidence, a Californian voice messaging firm called SayNow had been bought by Google just two days before the fall of the Tunisian government and Mubarak’s attempt to cut Egypt off the net.

SayNow’s co-founder Ullwal Singh and their Middle East product manager AbdelKarim Mardini, came up with a plan over a weekend with engineers from Google and Twitter ‘to help people on the ground’ in Egypt with a ‘speak to tweet’ service that let Egyptians tweet on voice connections that were still workable on the traditional Egyptian landline networks.

They announced, ‘It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialling the same phone numbers or going to twitter.com/speak2tweet.’

The disastrous consequences of Mubarak’s ‘kill switch’ prompted three American senators to revise their own proposed ‘kill switch legislation’ intended to give the US President new powers to fight foreign cyber attacks.

The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act had been approved by Senator Joe Lieberman’s committee in December but had not reached a full Senate vote.

The act would have given the President power over privately owned computer systems during a ‘national cyber emergency’ and prohibit legal review by the court system.

A statement from Senators Lieberman, Collins and Carper appeared during the uprising in Cairo announcing that their rewritten bill now ‘contains explicit language prohibiting the president from doing what President Mubarak did.’

The senators stated, ‘Some have suggested that our legislation would empower the president to deny U.S. citizens access to the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth.’

Ghonim, credited with administrating the Facebook page key that powered the pro-democracy movement, admitted he had aimed at revolution.

Whether Twitter and Facebook will exert a truly revolutionary effect on Middle Eastern politics is still being debated.

Paul Mason, Economics Editor for BBC Newsnight, put forward an extreme claim in The Guardian on February 7: ‘Protesters have stumbled upon the principle of asymmetry – a swarm of disorganised people can effect change against a slow-moving hierarchical body.

‘It's become axiomatic that the network is more powerful than the hierarchy. But the ad hoc network has become easier to form. So if you "follow" somebody from the University College of London occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California with contacts in Burma.

During the early twentieth century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.’

But three days later, in the same newspaper, historian Timothy Garton Ash, a witness of the 1989 collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe wrote: ‘I have lost count of how many articles I have seen [including, I hasten to add, one by myself] asking whether or not this is the Arab 1989.

‘The comparison may not, in the end, tell us all that much about what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia or Jordan – but it certainly tells us something about 1989. There is no doubt that 1989 has become the early 21st century default model for revolution. Forget 1917, 1848 or 1789.’

Marvelling at the 600,000 Facebook followers of Wael Ghonim, the local Egyptian marketing manager for Google released from secret detention during the uprising, Garton Ash claimed it is ‘the interaction of online and mobile social networks with the older superpower of television that creates the catalystic effect.

‘Al-Jazeera TV has produced a compelling narrative of liberation struggle, drawing on blogposts and blurry footage from mobile phone cameras. Ghonim became a popular hero because soon after his release from prison he appeared on an Egyptian television programme, thus reaching a wider mass audience for the first time. So these old and new technologies of communication matter enormously – but they did not prevent popular protest movements from being crushed in Belarus and Iran, they do not determine the outcome, and the medium is not the message.’

Ghonim, credited with administrating the Facebook page key that powered the pro-democracy movement, admitted he had aimed at revolution.

Most of his supporters insist that it is the ‘hash’ keys on their computer keyboards that will be remembered as the enduring symbol of the Cairo rising.

The # symbol serves as a metadata tag in the Twitter system and has identified thousands of desperate messages from activists, all untraceably marked ‘#egypt hashtag’.

Ghonim insisted; ‘I never put my life in danger while I was typing away on the internet’.

But he told Ivan Watson of CNN: ‘The plan was to get everyone on the street. The plan was, number one we’re going to start from poor areas. Our demands are going to be all about what touches people’s daily life. And by the way, we honestly meant it. One of the very famous videos we used all the time to promote this was a guy eating from the trash.

‘We’ve met all online. We put the plan online. There were some offline meetings between these guys. Most of these guys by the way did not know my name. They did not know who I am. I was just a guy running the show anonymously.

‘These guys made the plan. Where are we meeting? How are we going to surprise them? The plan was really smart I have to say. Those who were experts said we are going to go into rural areas and we're going to talk about demands that connect with people’s lives and we truly believe in these demands, like the minimum wage, like talking about the end of unemployment…reducing unemployment or at least giving people some sort of compensation to make a living.

‘If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access… the young crowds are all going to go out and see and hear the unbiased media, see the truth about other nations and their own nation. And they’re going to be able to communicate and collaborate.

Asked whether it was an internet revolution, Wael Ghonim said, ‘Definitely. This is the internet revolution. I’d call it revolution 2.0.’

Ghonim claimed to have been planning revolutionary activity two weeks before the fall of the Tunisian regime that sparked the rising in Cairo.

‘They just made it easier for us to convince the people. Hey, if all of us unite, we can do it. This is our country and we deserve a better future. If we unite, we can do it.

Twitter was founded in San Francisco exactly a hundred years after the influential anonymous letter reached Lord Cromer in 1906.

Nevertheless some revolutionary activists have also played down the effect of technology behind the mass movement, what Timothy Garton Ash calls ‘the ghost of technological determinism’. One blogger reminded activists, ‘The French Revolution went ahead without a hashtag.’

Before returning to Cairo from Britain, Ramy Aly, Research Fellow in Global Studies at the University of Sussex, admitted that social media had been significant before the outbreak of unrest on January 25, but argued that ‘leading internet activists have made it quite clear that the protests in Egypt are not simply the result of a Twitter or Facebook revolution. They would not have been possible without the widespread economic hardship and political oppression faced by wide swathes of Egyptian society.

‘Internet penetration in Egypt is limited. Officially there are 13.5 million users and it is clear that huge numbers of people have taken to the street and organised themselves in the absence of both the internet and mobile phone networks. In the medium term it will be interesting to see how social networking is represented in narratives of the uprising.’

It might be argued that since Egypt is said to be the oldest centralised state in the world, its seven thousand years old polity must have many times tested new forms of political communication and agitation.

Lord Cromer, who ran the country almost absolutely from 1883 to 1907, was so impressed by an anonymous letter sent to him in Arabic ‘signed by one, in the name of the people of Egypt’, that he quoted it verbatim in a white paper to his masters in the British government:

‘I who write these lines in the name of “All the People of Egypt”, am not a statesman or a man of great name; my person and my dwelling are alike unknown to you; but I feel constrained, in as much as I see many foolish acts committed, and hear many foolish words spoken, to stand on my feet and say the truth as I think God has put it into my heart.’

Twenty years after the Soviet coup failed to block the fax machines, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev now has his own Twitter account with 174,000 followers, including President Obama.

Twitter was founded in San Francisco exactly a hundred years after the influential anonymous letter reached Lord Cromer in 1906.

Two years later it was in Egypt that Twitter was dramatically tested by a Californian journalism student who became the first man to twitter himself out of jail.

James Buck, 29, had been investigating ‘blogging in a restrictive society’ with his friend and interpreter, Mohammed Salah Ahmed Maree, when they were arrested for taking pictures outside a police station in Mahalla El-Kubra.

With his mobile phone, Buck got the single word ‘Arrested’ away to his 48 followers on Twitter. He had only just learned to use the new system.

UC Berkeley called the powerful US embassy in Cairo and a day later Buck twittered to his growing band of Internet supporters: ‘Alive and OK. Still in jail’. The embassy sprang him a few hours later.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, his unfortunate interpreter, a 23 year old veterinary student, remained in prison for a further three months before being freed without charge.

Twenty years after the Soviet coup failed to block the fax machines, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev now has his own Twitter account with 174,000 followers, including President Obama.

On January 24, it was on Twitter that Medvedev learned of the devastating Domodedovo airport bombing.

Twitter led all available news media with the terrible news. Russian television and radio lagged hopelessly in announcing the full toll of 35 dead and 180 injured.

A Twitter user, Igor Platonov, revealed, in Russian, what was happening: 'Medvedev has learned from Twitter what’s going on in Domodedovo and has gathered an emergency meeting. What the hell is this [supposed to be], but a country?'

Platonov’s 'tweet' flashed across the nation and provoked a grim response from the popular blogger Alexey Navalny: 'Right now we are witnessing the final death of television and mainstream media as a source of operational information in a crisis situation.'

Medvedev commented that security checks at the airport had descended into 'a state of anarchy’.

The French Revolution certainly went ahead without hashtags. But it did take at least two years to unravel, between the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the flight of the royal family to Varennes in 1791.

With 32 million Twitter users worldwide in 2011, it is hard not to think that at least one of them might yet turn out to be a Mirabeau, a Jefferson, a Gandhi, or even a Lenin.

 

 

By Andrew Rosthorn

Photography: Demonstrators on army truck in tahrir Square, Cairo © Ramy Raoof - Wikimedia Commons




 

 

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