Egypt’s low-tech solutions to high-tech censorship

The World

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

Last Friday, the Egyptian government shut down most access to the Internet throughout the country. It also cut off mobile phone service. But that doesn’t mean Egyptians haven’t been able to make their voices heard — with a little outside help.

With Twitter, Facebook, cell phones and text messaging unavailable, printed flyers and word of mouth have become the new ways of organizing. Activists inside the country were not the only ones shocked by the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down most telecommunications.

“That was a very extraordinary move,” said Jonatan Walck, who is part of the volunteer group, Telecomix. “It was nothing you could prepare for.”

Telecomix helps people get around Internet censorship. Last Friday, the group decided to try to re-establish Internet access for Egyptians by asking European Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to free up lines once used for dial-up access.

The European ISPs did so free of charge, and Walck said Telecomix started distributing the access numbers by any means necessary — even by fax — to Egyptians.

“We’ve had nice ISPs around Europe open up those modem pools that are normally closed down, and provide them without any cost.”

John Scott-Railton, a graduate student in urban planning at UCLA, took a different tack. He was tracking events in Egypt via Twitter.

“It’s a place and a people that I have a lot of affection for, but the government has always broken my heart,” he said, “and I know a lot of people of my generation who are inhabiting an ossified system filled with stuff that’s older than stuff in my grandmother’s attic.”

When the Internet went dark, he figured that cell phones would quickly follow, so he called friends and acquaintances in Egypt and got landline numbers for them. When the cell phones were cut, he started calling Egypt — on his own dime.

At first, he would just take notes, and then send out a Twitter message. Then, he said, he realized that there is nothing like hearing the voice of these young people.

“I think that is the real corrective to distant images with a zoom lens of people and police,” Scott-Railton said.

He found an online service that allowed him to record and publish the audio from his phone calls. One voice said, “I’m walking down the street right now, people with sound systems. And they’re going with the same slogans — out with Mubarak.”

Another said, “right now, there are about 20 people on the bridge, and they’re out with brooms and plastic bags, and they’re just cleaning.”

Still another said, “thirty years of corruption has just fuelled this on for the people. Mubarak just doesn’t get it, and he won’t get it until he’s gone from power.”

Scott-Railton is compiling this audio on Twitter at “Jan25Voices.” He said he will continue to do this as long as his studies don’t suffer — or until he gets the phone bill.

PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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