Ahdaf Soueif, author of the 1996 best seller Map of Love, was interviewed by the BBC over the weekend in Cairo on how the West might best respond to the situation on the ground. Her comments were shaped by a day long encounter with democratic protesters aimed at helping them to articulate a political agenda for both the short and medium term.
Top of her list was that pressure be brought to bear to reverse the internet shut down.
Her comments are testament to the growing importance of social media as a tool for political mobilisation. It also reflects the anxiety of many that once demonstrators were deprived of this interface the Facebook Revolution would somehow lose momentum.
Rogin explores how the US State Department has been working frantically behind the scenes pressurizing Arab governments to halt their clampdown on social media. These efforts, he shows, are part of a wider program of work initiated after the 2009 demonstrations in Tehran to create an “open platform” for internet communications. In the case of Egypt this involves working with the pro-internet freedom networks to find loopholes in the blackout. Check out Global Voices to see what this means in practice.
Obviously, these micro efforts count for nothing if the US gets its macro policy wrong, but I’m gently encouraged by such efforts. Does the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office have a similar program designed to maintain the electronic space in which people and groups can assemble and speak freely? If it doesn’t, should it?
In a separate post, however, the Entreprenurialist questions whether companies like Vodafone which complied with the Egyptian request to close down its mobile service chose to put profits before ethics in full knowledge of the consequences that this would have on its user base. To the Entrepeneurialist this is a dereliction of Vodafone’s corporate social responsibility. It also drives a coach and horses through Vodafone’s claim to wish to create shared values with its user base. What do you think?
I understand where The Entrepeneurialist is coming from but I also recognise that this is a complex legal area. That said, although corporations are not moral gatekeeper’s they do have a duty of care not least to their customers. Even if Vodafone had no other option but to comply with the order I think they got the PR badly wrong. I would be intrigued to know what communications took place between Vodafone and government officials and what advice, if any, was provided?
As the importance of social media as political tool grows sharp ethical questions will emerge as to how that space might best be governed. One State Department official quoted by Rogin says: “None of us are cyber-utopians; we have always been clear-eyed about this. The question is not whether tech is good or bad, it’s disruptive. And in a disruptive environment, the question is how can you maximise your interests.”
Where do you stand on this?