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Egypt: Vodafone Caves to Mubarak. Did they Have a Choice? Vodafone Caves on Mubarak's Demand to Shut Cell Service

The government of Egypt asked Vodafone to turn off all cell service to 25 million customers and Vodafone said, sure, OK, we'll do that.

When cell service vanished for as many as 60 million customers in Egypt on Friday it wasn't the government turning off the towers, it was cell providers. At least for Vodafone customers who said in a statement that President Hasni Mubarak's government asked all cell providers to suspend all service. And Vodafone complied. The government asked. Vodafone said sure.

Should the British telecom company have done otherwise? Amnesty International thinks so. "Vodaphone's willingness to close down its network is simply beyond belief," AI's secretary general told the German business paper Handelsblatt (English link).

Sadly, business resistance to autocratic requests is rarely bold. Google complied with China's censorship requests for years before moving operations to Hong Kong, arguing that working with an oppressive regime is a better path to progress than letting them go it alone. Vodafone is giving a more Real Politik answer: We had no choice. Here's the full statement posted Saturday:

Vodafone restored voice services to our customers in Egypt this morning, as soon as we were able.

We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers. It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone, or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.

Moreover, our other priority is the safety of our employees and any actions we take in Egypt will be judged in light of their continuing wellbeing.


If Vodafone had said no would the government have cut service themselves? Probably. The primary blame certainly falls squarely on the government for the request and creating business operating conditions that allow for a total shut-down of cell service so easily. But it would be nice to see a company take a brave stance and say no. As we reported earlier, there are American companies actually helping Egypt suppress protesters, so Vodafone is by no means the biggest business bad guy here for obeying an order.

Vodafone has about 25 million customers of the 60 million cell phone users in Egypt, a country of 80 million people. It is unclear just how much, if any, resistance other cell phone providers responded. The Wall Street Journal reports: "France Telecom SA, ... said Egyptian authorities "had taken measures" to cut off its mobile and Internet services in the country, provided through its subsidiary called Mobinil." We'll find out if any company took a stand and what consequences they face in the coming days.

What do you think Vodafone should have done?

Image: (cc) taken with a BlackBerry cell phone, uploaded by Flickr user Muhammad.

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