Keeping Egyptians Connected Without the Internet
After 3 days of demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir (Independence) Square, and ahead of a large protest planned for the upcoming Friday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak decided to revoke citizens' access to the world wide web.
Twitter had been flooded with Tweets tagged with the hashtag for the uprising, #Jan25, and the admins of a network of Facebook pages were keeping one another, Egyptians, and the world abreast of what was happening with a regular stream of images, videos and text updates.
After the Egyptian government shut down all but one of the country's Internet Service Providers (ISPS), how would information about the protests reach the world? And if it didn't, would Mubarak's military dictatorship be granted impunity to crack down on protesters with brutal force?
At the time of the uprising, around 20% of the population was online. The social web in Arabic was growing fast - it had recently become the fastest growing language on Facebook. Much of the Egyptian population, in addition to being more likely to use the internet regularly, was also pretty used to making long distance phone calls.
Lastly, Mubarak's government had not been adept at censoring content online. Egyptians were accustomed to being able to communicate with each other and with the world at large freely and when they wanted, without having to use proxies (as was the case in, for instance, nearby Tunisia). This made the net shutdown that much more of a blow.
The Tools and Tactics
Around the time that this happened, Google acquired a voicemail company called Say Now to add to their Voice operations. The shut down occurred on a Thursday, and that weekend a well wishing Google engineer had a free weekend and some unalloted 20% time ahead of him. Twitter, where many Egyptians had been broadcasting messages from the streets before losing their connectivity, was also looking to help in some way. And a UCLA graduate student had already been encouraging friends in Cairo to call him on their landlines so that he could transcribe Tweets and post them on his new account: @Jan25Voices. Over the course of the weekend, these three factors led to a new service and a new Twitter handle: @speak2tweet. It allowed Egyptians to post Tweets to the internet in audio form by calling a designated phone number and leaving a voicemail about what they were seeing and experiencing. These voicemails were automatically posted to the @speak2tweet feed.
The fact, however, that these Tweets were audio as opposed to the much easier to absorb, and share, text format, and were in Arabic, meant that a lot less people had access to them. That's when a startup media company called Small World News began to translate the voice messages and setup a website and a new Twitter handle to get the translated content out. The site would be called Alive.in Egypt, consistent with their previous projects, Alive.in Baghdad and Alive in Afghanistan, which also focus on getting high quality and well contextualized citizen created media out from conflict zones to the rest of the world. The SWN team put out a call for translators and people heard them - "At 1 point we had 100 people working on a collective spreadsheet at the same time - we never expected there to be so much interest in shared translation" says Brian Conley, the outfit's founder (and a Movements.org Senior Fellow!).
Meanwhile, Egyptians were also using landlines to gain access to the internet. How? European Internet Service Providers made dial up connections available for free in cooperation with a network of hackers called Telecomix. Everyone did everything they could to get these numbers to people in Egypt, along with directions for how to dust off their old modems and use the dial up numbers to connect to the net.
Anyone could login to an internet relay chat room - a service that has been around since the earliest days of the internet - and connect with Telecomix members and other hackers or just interested parties to see what the world was doing to keep Egyptians connected. If you'd done that, you would have seen that dial up modems weren't the only 20th century technology getting dusted off. A community of ham radio afficionados in and out of Egypt were communicating using morse code. At that time, the main entreaty coming out of Egypt to the ham radio community was: "tell the the world to pay attention."
The Stumbling Blocks
The tools that people were dusting off to remain connected may have been from the 20th century, but there was still a definite learning curve in order to make a lot of these tactics worked. The audience most likely to benefit from the eager offers of help coming from international observers were more likely to be similar to those international observers: technically savvy computer geeks and hackers. It should be mentioned, then, that much of what was coming out was from just a small portion of the population.
In the long run, it's not clear if any of the tactics employed or the tools that were either brushed off or created with Egyptians in mind will grow into products that can be used the next time a population is cut off from the World Wide Web. Attentions quickly shifted away from the problem, and it remains to be seen if the world will, because of what happened in Egypt, acquire a replicable mechanism for keeping a country connected to the world even when it lacks net access.
After five days, access to the web was restored. Egyptians went back to Tweeting, Facebooking and using whatever other tools were available to broadcast information about their uprising.
If you had to choose one word for what people - activists, hackers and everyone else - found out about one another during those five days it would probably be adaptability. A government can marshall all its resources to stop its people from getting connected to each other and the outside world, but when the entire outside world is working to help those people find ways around that block, just how successful can it be? Global civil society stepped up, marshaled every tool it could, Egyptian voices remained audible despite the communications crackdown, and the protests continued.
The question of why Mubarak's regime reinstated access remains unanswered. It may have been in part because it was clear that, both because of the global network that came to Egyptians aid, and because of the fact that losing access to the web caused every last "keyboard activist" to walk into the streets and towards Tahrir square in search of news about what was going on, revoking access had done the opposite of what was intended. There was also pressure from those whose financial interests were at stake - the last remaining Internet Service Provider was unsurprisingly also the one that serviced major financial interests such as the multinational companies Coca-Cola, Canon, Microsoft and Exxon Mobil, but it too went down around 48 hours before access was restored. It may even have had something to do with a tactical pivot on the part of the regime to try and beat online activists at their own game, unleashing pro-Mubarak Facebook and Twitter users onto online forums. Probably, it was some combination of all these factors.
What's clear is that Mubarak's net shutdown provided an array of lessons learned for online activists. Who will be more prepared the next time internet access is completely revoked? In the days following the ouster of Mubarak, Telecomix continued to provide dial up connected to protesters in Bahrain and Libya, and SWN launched Alive.in/Libya to help people their get their stories out, even traveling to Benghazi to provide training. Their site has received hits from almost every country in the world.blog comments powered by Disqus