A major demonstration of new-style corporate intervention occurred today when Google teamed with Twitter and newly acquired start up SayNow to circumvent the Egyptian government’s lockdown of the country’s internet system.
Catch up on the Google blog in full here, but the brief version is that the three companies created a voice-to-web communication system that allowed people to tweet without needing web access – three phone numbers and a voice call did the trick instead. Many people around the world were justifiably horrified when Egypt pulled the plug on web access in a bid to quell protests – and more than a few people raised eyebrows of concern when the companies concerned said that their contracts stated they had to pull the plug ‘on demand’.
In some countries, internet access has been enshrined as a human right – notably Finland and Estonia – while in others, such as Egypt, it is evidently not. From today, the moot point is that whatever individual governments decide, it is now possible their decisions can be overruled by the technical cooperation of net giants – should said giants choose to do so. The key question and, I would suggest, a matter for scrutiny among all communicators is who, in a commercial organisation, chooses to make that call? And what happens if they choose not too? What if commercial interests are so intertwined with a government or political figure that citizens in some future protest remain off line? What if one group of net giants supports the incumbents and another group supports the protestors? The Google-Twitter-SayNow action has set both a precedent and a new communications protocol. We should keep a close eye on what happens next.