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Vodafone: Egypt Made Us Send Those Pro-Mubarak Texts. Critics: So? [Updates]

Vodafone (VOD) announced that the Egyptian government forced it to send pro-Hosni Mubarak text messages to its customers in that country. But even though the company says it "protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable," much global reaction has been negative, showing how easily it is to mishandle such circumstances.

Vodafone initially switched off its cellular service at the beginning of the protests under the order of the government. According to a statement the company made available to BNET, since the state of the protests, the authorities ordered Vodafone to switch the network back on, and to send messages under the emergency powers provision of the Egyptian Telecoms Act.

The major management blunder, however, was to mention these messages only after images of the texts, like the one below, began to appear online.

The image above comes from several made available by Flickr user SheriefFarouk, and credited to Riham Nabil, supposedly have the following translations:

  • "Youth of Egypt, beware rumors and listen to the sound of reason - Egypt is above all so preserve it."
  • "The Armed Forces asks Egypt's honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor and our precious Egypt."
  • "To every mother-father-sister-brother, to every honest citizen preserve this country as the nation is forever."
  • "The Armed Forces cares for your safety and well being and will not resort to using force against this great nation."
[I asked the Middle East Media Research Institute to look at the messages and provide independent translations of the messages, which it graciously agreed to do. Here are their versions:
  • "O youth of Egypt, be aware of rumors and listen to the voice of mind .. Egypt is above all so protect it .. "
  • "The armed forces pledge all the loyal men of Egypt to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families and our precious Egypt."
  • "To every mother, father, sister, brother ... to every honest citizen ... Protect this country because a homeland remains forever ... "
  • "The armed forces are concerned about your security and safety and will never use the force against this great nation."

Vodafone had already faced criticism over its decision to cut service in the first place, even though the company said that Egyptian authorities could have closed the network if Vodafone hadn't complied. Salil Tripathi, director of policy at the Institute for Human Rights and Business argued that the company could have considered a range of steps rather than immediate compliance:

  • Ask the state to provide instructions in writing.
  • Ask the state to explain the rationale.
  • Argue its own case - and responsibility to customers - to provide uninterrupted services.
  • Provide the legal basis and rationale to consumers and investors for suspending services.
  • Provide sufficient warning to customers.
  • Consider withdrawing operations, if forced to act in ways that undermine its responsibility to respect human rights.
In a phone interview, Tripathi said that sending the texts only "compounds" Vodafone's problem:
In the mind of an activist in Egypt today, Vodafone is complicit and a player. This is a command that just makes it worse. I believe they have a majority stake.
Much reaction on Twitter using the #vodafone tag supports Tripathi's view, with some calling Vodafone's compliance shameful and its explanation a lame excuse.

Vodafone's results for last quarter, released today, show how beholden the company is to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific. Business in Europe dropped by 3.5 percent year over year. Only the 18.1 percent lift in the former three regions helped the company see an overall 3 percent revenue lift.

So there is a sense that the company is heavily dependent on governments like Egypt's. However, in a longer-term view of business, Tripathi says that companies might well shift their focus from a given government to the people of a country:

"It's about time that companies really serious think about [human rights]. It could be about Shell in Nigeria or Union Carbide in India. Governments come and go. The people stay. If I were an employee of one of these companies, if I were to do this, how would the average Joe or Jane feel about this?
As the Vodafone experience shows, a "go along to get along" attitude can blow up in executives' faces.

[Update: Vodafone responded to questions about the criticisms with a further statement from a spokesperson to BNET:

Many people are commenting on this issue without establishing the facts. We have made it clear that our prime concern is our employees and their safety, providing services to our customers and maintaining our network. We hope that by being transparent on the sequence of events and the reasons for our actions, commentators will see that we have taken the right actions and inform people accordingly.


Image: Sarmady - a Vodafone company
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