Using Facebook to Protest and Overturn an Unfair Egyptian Data Usage Policy
In August 2009 – seemingly without warning – Egyptian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began implementing the “Fair Usage Policy” (also referred to as “Limited Internet Plan” and “The Policy of Equitable Downloads”), placing limits on bandwidth and download speed despite subscribers’ so-called “unlimited usage” plans. The country’s National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) justified this action, stating that the new policy “aim[ed] at spreading high speed internet services all over the country and to reach a bigger portion of users, while getting rid of illegal line sharing between households, which lower the quality of the service." While the restrictions did not necessarily affect the average user, they considerably impacted those users that required the downloading of large files, like students enrolled in online courses or online television viewers, and users whose professions depended on international servers or website design, for example. Additionally, because unlimited Internet plans were too expensive for many customers to afford on their own, especially with homes so close to each other, many neighborhood residents split the cost and shared the services amongst each other. The restriction of shared lines meant that many low-income users could no longer experience the same benefits of the Internet – such as file-sharing – and the camaraderie that was created by this network within many of the poorer neighborhoods. The Public Campaign Against Limiting Download in Egypt also questioned the legality of the new policy, stating that “The new policy violates the signed contracts between subscribers and ISPs for unlimited internet subscriptions. Also, it isn't in accordance with the general policy of the government that encourages the spread of internet usage.”
Following the execution of this new policy, Egyptian film-school student Mohamed Ramadan created a Facebook group in objection that attracted more than 23,000 members. Rejecting the government’s justification of the plan, Ramadan stated, “instead of enhancing the service and developing the servers which will cost a lot of money, internet companies chose to limit usage so that costs remain the same while revenues increase.”
The Tools and Tactics
Not surprisingly, critique of the policy was expressed the loudest on Facebook. At the time, barely more than 10% of citizens had Internet access, but nearly 800,000 Egyptians were members of Facebook. Further, Facebook was the third most-visited site in the country, coming in just behind Google and Yahoo. To many users, Facebook represented a forum where they could voice their opinions without censorship or (seemingly, at the time) repercussion and contradicted the idea that Egyptians were politically apathetic. Beyond Ramadan’s group, dozens of Facebook groups popped up almost immediately, all urging Egyptians to protest the policy. Twitter users expressed the same sentiment, and other Internet users spread the word over online forums and even video sharing sites. On the site masrawy.com, a video of Adolf Hitler protesting the Limited Internet Policy circulated amongst users. These online protests led to physical protests by supporters who threatened to boycott the country’s ISP and stage a revolt – regardless of the consequences - if the media and government did not drop the plan.
The Stumbling Blocks
Despite the 2006 amendment to its Press Law, “dissemination of ‘false news,’ criticism of the president and foreign leaders, and publication of material that constitutes ‘an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals’ or an ‘outrage of the reputation of families’ remain criminal offenses that are prosecuted opportunistically by the authorities” in Egypt. As such, the dissent against governmental action witnessed in the 2009 Facebook group would have been much harder to circulate through traditional forms of media. At the same time, using social media to voice discontent does not come without consequences. Ahmed Maher, who in 2008 started a Facebook group calling for a day of protest against the government, was arrested and allegedly beaten by Egyptian police until he provided them with his (fake) Facebook password.
Following such a palpable expression of disproval, Dr. Tariq Kamel, Egyptian Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunications, revoked the policy, demonstrating again the power of social media to lead to change at the larger level. In a formal statement, Kamel asserted, “The ministry and the NTRA consider this an experiment to be tested only on new subscriptions and offers. All current contracts between Internet Service Providers and users will remain in order with all their stipulations and with no amendments as a means to preserve the rights of the Egyptian user.”
As blogger Ben Colmery, who focuses on the link between media and communications and advocacy, explained it, “Egyptians might live under a dictatorship, and see their freedom of expression constantly threatened … [but] reality is that social media are making it increasingly difficult for authorities to mitigate … the ability for the public to spread information that threatens and ultimately weakens the strength of that dictatorship.”
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