Egypt Hijacks Vodafone Network

Egypt Hijacks Vodafone Network

Mobile carrier Vodafone has said that Egyptian authorities used its network to send pro-government text messages, even as the country’s communications infrastructure was largely shut down to prevent protesters from organizing.

The London-based company said the Egyptian government invoked emergency rules to justify the messages and ordered the network briefly switched on to send them. Vodafone also said that it had no control over the content of the messages, which were scripted by Egyptian authorities.

One of the texts reportedly appealed to the nation’s “honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor.” The message sender was “Vodafone.” Another message, reportedly sent yesterday, gave the place and time for a pro-Mubarak demonstration.

“We have protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable,” Vodafone said in a statement. “We have made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator.”

It was not immediately clear why Vodafone took so long to publicly object to the messages, which were reportedly sent throughout the days of demonstrations that erupted last Friday. The company said that other carriers had also been compelled to send similar messages.

The Vodafone texts are the latest revelation in the much scrutinized role that mobile communications have played in the political upheaval in Egypt. As ongoing protests threatened to topple President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the country took unprecedented steps to quell dissent and prevent information about the conflict from reaching the global community.

Egypt effectively removed itself the Internet for five days, an act that may have cost the economy $90 million according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and shaken investors’ faith in the country.

The government also ordered disruptions in cellular networks. Vodafone’s chief executive said today that voice calls and text messaging were still switched off, though mobile Internet was working.

Egypt’s information blackout far exceeded recent attempts to mute protests in Iran and Tunisia, during which specific social networking sites were blocked and Internet service was slowed but not cut off.

These extraordinary measures, along with authorities’ co-opting of text messaging, highlight the strategic importance of mobile and Internet technologies for both opposition groups and governments.

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