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[liberationtech] A Sobering View of Liberation Technologies in Action

Yosem Companys companys at
Thu Jan 22 23:43:56 PST 2009

December 8, 2008
Link by Link
 The Freedoms That Technologies Help Bring By NOAM

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

Still, that was the condition put on the introduction of
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 Mr. 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
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 the American University in Cairo. "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.

Mr. 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. Another blogger is being held in a military camp, the
group says.

It is enough to make one ask if new technologies — the personal computer,
the World Wide 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 cellphone 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.

Mr. 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
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
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
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 Mr. 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
"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."
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