The Egyptian government’s move last week to shut down the Internet in the country backfired because it further inflamed antigovernment protestors, a digital activist in the country said Thursday.
While the Egyptian government believed that shutting down the Internet would quiet the protests, the exact opposite happened, said Tarek Amr, an Egyptian blogger and computer programmer. “The protests became bigger and bigger without the Internet,” Amr said during a webcast hosted by Access, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group.
Now that the Egyptian government has restored Internet and mobile-phone service, it has begun using digital tools in an attempt to sway public opinion, according to Amr and mobile carrier Vodafone Egypt.
Vodafone said Thursday that Egyptian authorities had ordered it and other carriers to send text messages to the country’s residents.
“These messages are not scripted by any of the mobile network operators and we do not have the ability to respond to the authorities on their content,” Vodafone said in a statement. “Vodafone Group has protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable. We have made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator.”
Many Egyptians have gotten text messages asking them to stay home and not join the protests, Amr said. Some text messages have said that the protests are bad for the Egyptian economy, he added.
More protests in Cairo are planned, and the attendance will test whether the text messages and other communications from the government have been successful, Amr said. Many Egyptians now seem to believe that President Hosni Mubarak is “not to be trusted,” he said.
Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, called on more governments to denounce the actions by the Egyptian government to block the Internet and take over texting networks. Carriers may be better able to resist such efforts if there’s more world support for them, Schaake, a member of the liberal D66 party, said during the Access webcast.
Access moderator Brett Solomon asked Amr if he and other Egyptians were worried about using social media such as Facebook. Egyptian law enforcement agents do monitor Facebook, and when the Internet was down, one of their monitoring tools was down, he said.
“When they blocked [the Internet], we were blocked, and they were blocked as well,” he said.
Amr said he couldn’t predict how the police will use Facebook if protests continue. “We are not sure how the police will act,” he said.
Also during the Access webcast, Walid Al-Saqaf, a Yemeni software developer and journalist, reported a large — and largely peaceful — demonstration in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The Yemeni protestors were inspired by recent demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, but most of their information came from television network Al Jazeera, he said.
A small fraction of the Yemeni population has Internet access, Al-Saqaf said.
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.