Egypt booted Free Basics over access to user data

Apr 01, 2016, 2:33 PM EDT
Tahrir tees. (Source: Tarek/flickr)
Tahrir tees. (Source: Tarek/flickr)

The confusion around why the Egyptian government failed to reinstate Facebook’s free internet service in January may have been cleared up. Two sources told Reuters that Facebook had refused to give Cairo the ability to spy on users. 

To recap, earlier this year, Egypt shut down Free Basics — the controversial free, curated internet service that Facebook is trying to disseminate in several countries. Etisalat said its two-month permit for Free Basics expired, and Cairo insisted that its failure to renew it was not related to security concerns. Reuters is now reporting that two people with "direct knowledge of discussions between Facebook and the Egyptian government” said that the service was deliberately blocked because the company would “not allow the government to circumvent the service's security to conduct surveillance.” They did not reveal specifics as to what type of access the government wanted or what exactly it wanted Facebook to change operationally.

This report confirms suspicions that Cairo spun Free Basics’ suspension as unrelated to security because it didn’t want to seem abusive of a system that reaches far more users than current web services in Egypt do. Free Basics is aimed at lower-income customers, and targets users who cannot afford more expensive telecom services — a demographic of data the Egyptian government probably would have loved to get its hands on. Indeed, Facebook said more than 3 million Egyptians used the service before it was suspended, and 1 million of them had never had web access before.

It comes as little surprise that Facebook’s refusal to comply with handing over user data to Cairo earned it the boot. Egyptian authorities have been leery and resentful of the U.S. social media company since the Arab Spring. And Facebook is at the center of another controversy in Egypt right now: Poet Fatma Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison in January, having been convicted of "insulting Islam" because of a Facebook post she created calling the ceremonial slaughter of sheep during a Muslim holiday "the most horrible massacre committed by humans,” according to the Washington Post. On Thursday, an Egyptian court rejected her appeal and upheld her sentence for “contempt of religion.”  Facebook has become an outlet for users in Egypt to issue grievances, though not without repercussions as Cairo enforces strict blasphemy laws, and routinely looks to social media to justify arrests. 

Kicked out of both Egypt and India, Free Basics has had a rocky start. It is still available in 37 countries, but its troubles are likely not over. Look for more issues as user privacy and net neutrality come to the foreground.