Alas, poor Vodaphone. In one of the more interesting cyber war wrinkles, it looks as if hanging-on-by-his-fingernails Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government ordered the London-based company to send out text messages urging people to come out and support his forces. An Egyptian company, Mobinil, also said the government ordered it to send messages.
The messages sent by Vodaphone and its Egyptian friend apparently told subscribers: "Massive demonstration to start at noon this Wednesday from Mustafa Mahmoud Square, in support of President Mubarak."
Here is Vodaphone's statement:
"Under the emergency powers provisions of the Telecoms Act, the Egyptian authorities can instruct the mobile networks of Mobinil, Etisalat and Vodafone to send messages to the people of Egypt. They have used this since the start of the protests. 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 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."
While these messages may not have turned the tide in the battle between the forces for change and the country's more conservative elements, it may well have helped increase turnout by those predisposed to help Mubarak stay in power.
This appears to be part of a much wider trend of governments using emergency powers or special authorities governing the Internet and cell phones to influence events such as elections, riots, sensitive anniversaries (think 911 or the end of Ramadan). Governments are increasingly shutting down Internet or cell services -- or selectively curtailing them. according to Ron Deibert, director of Canada's ground-breaking Citizen Lab. He spoke this afternoon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He called it "just in time blocking."
"That's becoming de riguer for authoritarian governments around the world," he said, referring to Egypt's decision to shut down Internet access. One interesting tidbit-- not all Internet access was killed, he said. One Internet Service Provider "was still alive last week, providing 5 star hotels, Coca Cola and a few other companies with Internet access while the rest of Egypt was unable to check news webs sites and Facebook.
China has blocked Internet access to the entire Uighur region for long periods of time. Kyrgystan hired a Ukrainian hacker to launch denial of service attacks against human rights groups and the opposition. Thailand shut things down three days before an election, Deibert said. Burma closed the Internet before its sham November elections.
How effective are the efforts by governments to control Internet access? It's hard to tell, but in the Egyptian case Deibert thinks it may have backfired. "I think it had the opposite effect. It drove the people of Egypt out into the streets," he said.
But my favorite tidbit from today's discussion had to do with what were apparently Chinese government hacks of websites in 103 countries, including several classified websites in India. Deibert spoke with the head of the National Technical Research Organization, who told him his organization knew of Deibert's group's work and that he liked it. "Would you like to join us and strike back at the Chinese," he asked the clearly nonplussed researcher. Deibert said he graciously declined the offer.