Egypt's iPhone limits reflect bigger issues


Oct 15, 2008
source cnet

Among international outrages, depriving citizens of personalized maps seems far down on the list.

Still, that was the condition put on the introduction of Apple's 3G iPhone in Egypt. The government demanded that Apple disable the phone's Global Positioning System, arguing that GPS is a military prerogative.

The company apparently complied, most likely taking a cue from the telecom companies that sell the phone there, said Ahmed Gabr, who runs a blog in Egypt,, and wrote about the iPhone's release there. "The point is that using a GPS unit you can get accurate coordinates of any place and thus military bases and so on could be easily tagged," he wrote in an e-mail message.

I met Gabr last summer in Alexandria, Egypt, at the worldwide conference for Wikipedia. He was typical of the young Egyptians in attendance--hungry for new technology, hopeful about what it would mean for their country.

As much as any country, however, Egypt illustrates the push-me-pull-you nature of technology under an oppressive government. Young people flock to Facebook, in a way I never could have imagined. For the largest Arab country in the world, it was a way for the educated elite to reach out to one another and to those who had left the country for an even more elite education.

Andrew Bossone, an American in Cairo who writes about technology, said that despite its expense, the iPhone in Egypt was "really popular--everyone knows the iPhone." In addition to editing a technology magazine, he teaches at American University. "One of my students who comes from a wealthy family has the iPhone and one of my designers, who is not rich, bought it on credit," he said.

Bossone says he thinks the government will relent on issues like GPS because it will side with business even at the expense of security concerns.

"The economy is itself a security issue," he said. "The slower the economy grows, the more people become discontented, and that is a security issue."

But thus far, each time technology has promised to help introduce democracy to the country, the young peoples' hopes have been dashed.

A movement for political reform that used Facebook to organize protests over the spring was shut down. The authorities cracked down, jailing many of its organizers. In the last few weeks, a blogger affiliated with the radical group Muslim Brotherhood was arrested for his writings, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Another blogger is being held in a military camp, the group says.

It is enough to make one ask if technologies--the personal computer, the Web, the all-powerful smartphone--will help set us free or merely give us that illusion.

Apple modified its phone without any public acknowledgment. In a series of e-mail exchanges and brief telephone conversations, an Apple spokeswoman detailed the success of the iPhone rollout around the world--a total of 13 million phones shipped since it was introduced in June 2007, and more than 200 million applications downloaded.

But she did not answer how the iPhone came to be disabled and whether Apple had a policy it followed in modifying its products to meet the demands of governments worldwide.

This issue remains keenly relevant as Apple negotiates the introduction of the iPhone to China, whose estimated 500 million users make it the big kahuna of cell phone markets. Some reports say that in addition to issues like revenue sharing, there has been talk about modifying the phone so as not to use the 3G network or offer Wi-Fi capability.

Gabr described in his e-mail message what he considered to be the faulty rationale for the policy in Egypt.

"From a technical point of view, this is totally pointless because Google Maps works flawlessly here--you can even get a clear snap (with accurate coordinates) of places you're not supposed to see."

As an aside, he said that months ago he "bought an American iPhone 3G via eBay" with full functionality. "Cheaper, earlier and without compromise," he wrote, signing his note with a self-satisfied smiley-face.

I must admit, I didn't exactly think that the right to GPS was one of the Four Freedoms. But Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights program of Human Rights Watch, placed the issue in a larger context.

First, he described freedom of information as part of the broader, better known, freedom of expression. Transparency about the government's budget, for example, can be crucial to eliminating corruption and instituting democratic reforms.

And second, he argued that it was important for technology companies to set principles and follow them. "Here is the big question for Apple: Is this an ad-hoc approach or is there a fundamental policy, balancing the freedom of expression and information with the demands of the government?"

It is easy to get swept up in the utopianism embedded in new technologies. That we will be more politically engaged because of the organizing and fund-raising tools of social networking; that we will think greater thoughts now that anyone can have access to nearly everything ever written; that our tribal hatreds will melt away as the world recognizes that we genuinely are all connected.

Even those like Ganesan, who see technology abused, are cautiously hopeful. "Technologies do not hold people accountable. They give people the tools to hold people accountable." But he added: "We believe as a human rights group that the Internet can have an opening and transforming effect."

When Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978, he said, people were "smuggling letters by hand from the Soviet Union--that was how the world found out about a dissident." Today, there is a range of tools for spreading the word, from blogs to e-mail to YouTube videos.

"We may not know what the maximum impact of openness is," he said. "But we do know that in the most closed places the worst things happen."