Technology is a two-edged political sword

February 3, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Chris Hughes

The conventional wisdom that modern revolutions are powered by the Internet and mobile phones faces a challenge. Vodafone and other mobile networks in Egypt have found themselves instruments of the state as much as of the people. Using powers that are surprisingly common in operating licenses, the authorities sent blanket text messages without attribution, possibly creating the impression that the operator was behind them. The messages, for example, urged customers to confront what were referred to as criminals and traitors, according to one website.

Vodafone has moved quickly to distance itself from the transmissions. Having earlier been forced to suspend services, this is another example of the ethical challenges of staying in the country. But it remains hard to see how the world is really better off by Vodafone exiting, even if it feels compromised.

When modern communication seems instant and wire-free, it is unsettling to be reminded that the state ultimately controls the physical infrastructure on which the Internet and mobile devices depend. If revolutions can start on Twitter, technology can be a weapon of the state too.

Still, it would be wrong to get too worried. Egypt’s decision last week to freeze the networks arguably backfired and may even have encouraged people onto the streets. Many Vodafone customers will make up their own minds about the new messages too. Technology may be a two-edged sword, but the state has the blunter side.

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