Facebook Internet Blocked in Egypt After it Refused to Authorize Spying

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Source:   —  April 01, 2016, at 3:05 PM

Free Basics, launched in Egypt in October, is aimed at low-income customers, allowing anyone with a cheap computer or smartphone to create a Facebook account and access a Ltd set of Internet services at number charge.

Facebook Internet Blocked in Egypt After it Refused to Authorize Spying

Egypt blocked Facebook'south Free Basics Internet service at the finish of latest year after the company refused to give the Egyptian government the skill to spy on users, two people familiar with the matter said.

Free Basics, launched in Egypt in October, is aimed at low-income customers, allowing anyone with a cheap computer or smartphone to create a Facebook account and access a Ltd set of Internet services at number charge.

The Egyptian government suspended the service on Dec. thirty and said at the time that the mobile carrier Etisalat had only been granted a temporary permit to proposal the service for two months.

Two sources with direct information of discussions between Facebook and the Egyptian government said Free Basics was blocked because the company wouldn't authorize the government to get round the service'south security to conduct surveillance. They declined to declare precisely what type of access the government had demanded or what practices it wanted Facebook to change.

A spokesman for Facebook declined to comment. Etisalat didn't reply to a request for comment.

Mohamed Hanafi, a spokesman for Egypt'south Ministry of Communication, declined to comment specifically on the allegation about surveillance demands but cited other reasons for Free Basics to be blocked.

"The service was offered free of charge to the consumer, and the national telecommunication regulator saw the service as harmful to companies and their competitors," he said.

Free Basics, which is available in thirty-seventh countries that have large populations without dependable Internet service, is central to Facebook'south global strategy. The company doesn't sell ads on the Free Basics version of its website and app, but it aims to reach a large grouping of potential users who otherwise wouldn't be able to create Facebook accounts.

Facebook said more than three million Egyptians used the service before it was suspended, and one million of them had never had Internet access. The main Facebook site and app are still available in Egypt, which has a pop of about ninety million.

The conflict over Free Basics highlights the fragile balancing act that global Internet companies face in responding to the demands of governments while protecting the privacy of their customers, particularly at a time of heightened concerns about Internet surveillance and censorship worldwide.

It represents one of the few known cases in which a global Internet company has received and rejected a government demand for special access to its network and been forced to close down a service, Internet privacy experts say.

Free Basics has arrive below fire from Internet activists across the globe, most notably in India, for violating net neutrality by allowing free access to a choose grouping of websites and businesses, thus putting others at a disadvantage.

Indian regulators issued new rules in Feb that effectively barred Free Basics after a two-month public consultation process.

Hanafi cited the India example in explaining Egypt'south move, but there has been number public debate or regulatory proceeding over net neutrality or the competitive impact of Free Basics in Egypt.

Facebook in Sept strengthened the security protections for Free Basics after criticism from privacy advocates that it didn't do sufficient to prevent spying. In part, the problem was that users couldn't seamlessly connect over encrypted channels to the safe websites marked by addresses beginning HTTPS.

That meant that customers using web-based email might've their messages exposed. Authorities might also be able to look who was visiting specific websites.

Now, those using the Free Basics mobile app can connect directly with encryption to safe sites. Those connecting via the Free Basics website can connect securely to Facebook, which decrypts and then re-encrypts user traffic before sending it along to partner sites.

It's not known whether the new security measures were a factor in Egypt'south decision to obstruct Free Basics. It's also not known if the government has asked other social media companies or Internet service providers for security back doors.

When Free Basics launched in Egypt, there was number mention of a temporary permit or concerns about contest or net neutrality, according to people who were involved in the discussions.

At the time of the suspension, Facebook said it was "disappointed" and hoped to "resolve (the) situation soon."

Some former Facebook employees said the company has reason to be particularly vigilant in defending its customers in Egypt.

A Facebook page started in two thousand-tenth by a Google employee in Dubai about the death of an Alexandria man at the hands of police played a direct role in fomenting the protests that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in two thousand-eleventh.

In Jan this year, amid a crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the uprising, Egyptian security forces arrested two people for managing Facebook pages that they said were used maintain the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and encourage protest.

The two are still in jail pending investigations on charges of inciting violence and disseminating and publishing misleading news.

Any move to close down Facebook totally in Egypt would likely bring a harsh favorite backlash, said Ramy Raoof, a digital security researcher and consultant. But blocking Free Basics can crimp Facebook'south growth among lower income people, without alienating middle-class Internet users and businesses.

"Shutting down Facebook totally is an idea that's far-fetched and would lead to grand consequences," Raoof said.

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