Doing Business With Bad Regimes: Vodafone in Egypt

Last Friday, Access Now put out a link to a petition urging Vodafone, Orange and all ISPs and mobile operators in Egypt to “get Egypt back online.”

We call on you to immediately open the Egyptian telecommunications networks. We ask that you stand firm against the Egyptian government and allow the people, and your customers, to communicate freely and openly at this vital time.

On the face of it, putting pressure on ISPs and telecoms companies operating in Egypt seems to make good sense. One might assume that appealing to Western companies might be more effective than putting pressure on Mubarak, which is what President Obama tried to do last week when he urged the Egyptian government “to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service, and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st Century.” (The President failed to persuade Mubarak, but inspired Steve Denning to float the idea in a column on that Internet access may be “a basic human right.”)

It’s unclear, however, how much the ISPs and mobile telephone companies operating in Egypt can do. On Saturday, for example, Vodafone Egypt announced that they had resumed services but expected further interruptions, and they explained their decision to take the network down as a pre-emptive move:

Statement – Vodafone Egypt
Saturday 29 January 2011. Vodafone restored voice services to our customers in Egypt this morning, as soon as we were able.
We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers.
It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone, or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.
Moreover, our other priority is the safety of our employees and any actions we take in Egypt will be judged in light of their continuing wellbeing [sic].

Salil Tripathi at the Institute for Human Rights and Business takes issue with this official statement, saying that Vodafone could have done more before “instantly” complying. Why didn’t they “push for answers” by asking the Egyptian state to provide instructions in writing and explain its rationale? Why didn’t they more forcefully argue the case for keeping service uninterrupted? At the very least, he says, they should have warned their Egyptian customers before shutting down.

These recommendations would seem sensible enough, but for the fact that the Egyptian authorities, according to Vodafone, have the “technical capability” to shut down the mobile network. (I am unclear why it would be even more difficult for Vodafone to restores service after a government shutdown, but I imagine it has to do with the fact that a government shutdown would not exactly proceed in a careful and methodical way.) If this is true, and Vodafone is not just taking refuge in technical hocus pocus, then no amount of protesting or arguing or pushing for answers would really matter, when push came to shove. It’s easy to imagine that defying the Mubarak government, refusing to comply, or delaying would put Vodafone employees at risk. Affiliation with a Western company is no guarantee of safety or immunity; consider the fate of Google’s @Ghonim.

John Morrison, Executive Director of the London-based Institute, followed up on Tripathi’s remarks with a letter to the Financial Times in which he pointed out that Vodafone’s “dilemma could hardly have been unexpected,” and telecoms and ISPs should exercise due diligence before doing business in a place like Egypt (or China, Iran or Sudan). “The clash between local law, albeit that of an authoritarian regime, and international law will be a key theme for the information and communication technologies sector for years to come,” he writes.

These companies will need to exercise comprehensive human rights due diligence before signing contracts with the governments or joint venture arrangements with national companies. The risks need to be managed as effectively as possible in the wording of the contracts themselves, something that is rarely the case at the moment. Without such action by the industry, some will say that UK or European Union law should be amended to require them to do so.

It is not too much to ask a company wishing to do business with an authoritarian regime to balance concerns about human rights and international law with its business interest. But that balance may be very difficult to strike, and due diligence should also take into account the crucial role mobile telephony and information technology have already played in opening closed societies.

Let’s say, for example, that Vodafone did human rights due diligence before signing a contract with the Egyptian government, and decided that the risks were too great – or that it could not include meaningful human rights agreements in its contract with the Egyptian government. Would it then have been better for the company to decide not to do business in Egypt? Would Egyptians really be better off today if Western mobile operators had decided, long before the events of January 25th, that it was just too risky, or too difficult, to do business in Egypt?

To ask the question is not to apologize for Vodafone. But it is worth asking what sorts of compromises are acceptable, especially since mobile telephony and mobile-based services like SayNowhave stepped into the breach now that Egyptian ISPs are offline, allowing Egyptians to communicate – albeit not without interruption – with each other and with the outside world.

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