U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on the Egyptian government to restore communications in the country after reports that officials there had ordered Internet service providers to shut down outside traffic in response to ongoing protests.
“We support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of expression, of association and of assembly,” Clinton said in a statement Friday. “We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications. These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian Government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.”
Clinton said President Barack Obama’s administration is “deeply concerned” about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces. “We call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces,” she said. “At the same time, protestors should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully.”
The Egyptian government should engage with the country’s residents to implement “needed economic, political, and social reforms,” Clinton added.
Other politicians, as well as technology-focused groups, also raised concerns about the actions of the Egyptian government.
Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Egypt an important U.S. ally, but said the government crackdown was “cause for grave concern.” He called on the Egyptian government to immediately restore access to communications and social-networking sites.
Repression will not solve the problems in Egypt, he said in a statement. “I call on the Egyptian government and security forces to exercise restraint in dealing with protesters and to respect the human rights of its citizens to seek greater participation in their own government,” said Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. “I hope the people of Egypt will continue to remember the lessons and legacy of peaceful protesters from Gandhi to Dr. [Martin Luther] King and to exercise their right to be heard in that tradition, which will rally peaceful people everywhere in solidarity.”
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, a U.S. trade group, applauded Clinton for calling on the Egyptian government to stop blocking Facebook and Twitter, two services protestors were using to organize. In early 2010, Clinton said Internet freedom would be a top priority for the State Department, CCIA President and CEO Ed Black noted.
“Secretary Clinton should be praised for taking a stand for the thousands of people in Egypt relying on Internet sites to communicate and organize politically,” Black said. “The Obama administration has recognized the importance of free and open communications as both a human rights issue and a barrier to trade and commerce, and seems to be increasingly responding to countries — even allies — who restrict access online.”
Black said he hopes pressure from the U.S. and other countries will prompt the Egyptian government to restore Internet services. Leaders there need to “realize that silencing dissent in this way is not a realistic solution for elected leaders,” he said in a statement.
The efforts of the Egyptian government to shut down Facebook and Twitter show the potential of social media, added Erika Mann, executive vice president at CCIA and a member of the board at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
“Personally I am stunned by the fact how fast social media is playing a key role in political uprising against the political establishment,” she said. “It shows the power of social media, which is sometimes discredited as a purely social communication channel.”
Meanwhile, digital rights group Free Press questioned the role of Narus, a California company and subsidiary of Boeing, in aiding the Egyptian government. Narus has sold real-time intelligence software that monitors Internet traffic to the state-run Telecom Egypt, the largest telecom carrier in the country. Narus provides deep packet inspection technologies that allow network managers to inspect, track and target content from Internet users and mobile phones, Free Press said.
“What we are seeing in Egypt is a frightening example of how the power of technology can be abused,” said Timothy Karr, Free Press’ campaign director. “Commercial operators trafficking in deep packet inspection technology to violate Internet users’ privacy is bad enough; in government hands, that same invasion of privacy can quickly lead to stark human rights violations.”
Companies that sell deep packet inspection technology need to be held to a “higher standard,” Karr added in a statement. “The harm to democracy and the power to control the Internet are so disturbing that the threshold for the global trafficking in [the technology] must be set very high.”
A Narus spokeswoman didn’t return a message seeking comment on the Free Press concerns.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant’s e-mail address is email@example.com.