Friend-of-the-blog Gabriel Koehler-Derrick does some really neat stuff with Google to track prominent personalities in religious currents, politics, and society in the Middle East. In this commentary he sent us, Gabriel looks at Google as an alternative indication of the popularity (or interest in) the various candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections. A PDF version of this article, which includes graphs that are tricky to transpose to the web, is here (275kb).
With the approach of Egypt’s presidential elections on Wednesday, a variety of polls have been published trying to anticipate the outright winner, or at least identify which two candidates are capable of winning enough votes to force a runoff election. Given the challenges associated with polling in Egypt, the historic nature of the election, and a confusing series of legal rulings that have dramatically shaken up the field of contestants, it is not surprising that the outcome remains unclear. While far from perfect, data from internet search trends suggest a far less ambiguous outcome: Amr Moussa is comfortably in the lead and Muhammad Morsi is the candidate most likely to face him should there be a runoff.
Anyone familiar with the telecommunications industry in Egypt might question the utility of using data derived from internet searches to better understand political developments. While internet penetration rates have grown impressively, according to a recent survey conducted by A.C. Nielsen for Google’s MENA office, only about 39% of Egyptians have “regular access” (defined in the survey as logging in once a month) to the internet. The data from the A.C. Nielsen survey also show that Egypt’s community of internet users are disproportionately male, and younger than average, with the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age cohorts being particularly well represented. To the best of my knowledge, credible statistics about the income and education level of Egypt’s internet users are not publically available, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to presume that typical internet users are skewed towards urban areas, and better educated and significantly wealthier than national averages. Because of these challenges, data derived from internet searches cannot be considered statistically representative of the Egyptian population.
Despite these drawbacks, internet search data enjoys a number of advantages for examining the presidential race. First, the number of data points for any time period is huge. A back of the envelope calculation, based on the Nielsen survey and some basic population data from the UN, suggests that in Egypt, Google gets almost 26 million searches a day. While only a tiny fraction of these searches are politically related, nine out of the “top 10 rising people” in Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist survey of Egypt’s search trends were connected to the revolution or politics more broadly, indicating just how influential political developments in 2011 were on search trends in Egypt. By way of comparison, none of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Turkey has anything to do with politics, and only one of the “top 10 rising people searches” in Canada , former leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) Jack Layton. Data from Google AdWords, provides an updated 30-day average of the number of searches for a given term, shows some impressive averages for each of the top presidential contenders. This is crucial because it provides a sense of scale for the Insights for Search data cited below, which uses normalized results not raw numbers to plot the trend lines for the various candidates.
The above chart is from a very cool graph made by the Guardian showing major internet cables across the world. This highlights how Egypt, or to be more specific the Suez Canal, is one of the world's major choke points for data traffic between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. I remember a decade ago talking to Egyptian IT types about the potential for Egypt becoming a major data-caching hub (to make internet access between east and west faster by caching content so that data requests would only have to travel half the distance). Yet to my knowledge there are no major data centers in the canal zone — surely a missed opportunity.
The most traffic this blog ever got was on January 28. Shortly after midnight, I posted that the internet had been shut down in Egypt. The news spread on technology sites like Slashdot and Reddit, eventually bringing down the site. I had internet because I was not in Cairo: I was in the middle of a reporting trip in Tunis, but was spending all my time after the curfew still in place then making calls to Cairo. I had landlines for friends, and quickly confirmed that at least three major ISPs had been simply shut off. It confirmed my gut feeling that something big was coming, and as I flew back to Cairo the next day what became an uprising had begun, defeating the police state.
I still feel that shutting down the internet (and mobile phones) was the key, pivotal tactical mistake of the Mubarak regime that pushed so many to join the protests. It took several days for the internet to be re-established, but in those few days a sense of urgency had been created, galvanizing the protestors' spirit and giving the whole Egyptian uprising story a new angle.
The idea is that the system will automatically set itself up. Drop a unit near another unit and they’ll start talking to one another and trading data. Add another and all three will talk to one another. Add a thousand and you can cover a whole city. Then if one of those routers is hooked up to an internet connection, everyone on the network can connect. If that connection disappears, users can still try to update an application like Twitter or send e-mail to the larger internet and the outgoing notes will go into a holding pattern until the mesh network finds another connection to the greater net.
In those early days, even a rapidly deployable intranet would have been useful — especially if you were able to use a Twitter-like service that was decentralized, working like P2P, and advertise services on it so they would be found automatically (like a central repository of some sort that would act as the intranet's home page). Even more useful would be a suitcase satellite internet, like a Bgan on steroids, that could immediately deploy wifi over a sizeable area and handle, say, 100 simultaneous users.
I was initially surprised to see this story:
The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold talks with the UAE over the ongoing BlackBerry dispute.
The United Arab Emirates has said it intends to prevent the phones sending e-mails, accessing the internet, and delivering instant messages.
Authorities are unhappy that they are unable to monitor such encrypted communications via the handsets.
Mrs Clinton said authorities had to balance "legitimate security concerns" with "right of free use and access".
"We are taking time to consult and analyse the full the range of interests and issues at stake, because we know that there is a legitimate security concern," Mrs Clinton said.
"But there is also a legitimate right of free use and access.
"So I think we will be pursuing both technical and expert discussions as we go forward," she added.
Why on earth would the Secretary of State of the United States of America, who surely has a busy agenda, spend her time talking to the UAE about their Blackberry ban? RIM, the makers of Blackberry, are Canadian, so it's not like she's representing American business interests (indeed, she should be pushing American iPhones on Emiratis instead.) It's not really a freedom of speech issue, since Emiratis can have access to other brands of phones that provide similar technology.
Then it hit me: Clinton is representing her real tribe, that secret cabal that runs the government, Washington Crackberry addicts. And the State Dept., which issues Blackberries (why aren't they buying American?!) to its employees partly because they come with all sorts of security options, also must have its thumb-typing protected. Anyone who's been to DC can relate that people there have the unnerving ability to pretend to be having a conversation with you while never taking their eyes off their tiny BB screens. It is one of the many charms of that wondrous city.
A few days ago Hillary Clinton made a major speech about internet freedom. She said:
On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.
One step towards that would be to fix the various impediments the US puts on accessing data, including from Middle Eastern countries. Take SourceForge, one of the most important repositories of open-source software in the world, where developers collaborate on building all sorts of tools, including the kind that might facilitate evading internet censorship. It turns out that since early this month it's been blocked in various countries including Iran, Syria, Sudan as well as other places upon which Washington has imposed sanctions.
Arab Crunch has a post by Abdelrahman Iblidi, a Syrian programmer, criticizing the legislation that forces SourceForge to ban users from these countries and others (Cuba, North Korea.) Syrian developers have had similar problems before with Google Code and other US-hosted sites. This example of internet censorship is particularly grating because open-source technology has often provided solutions to go around internet censorship and protect user privacy, such as Tor.
[I was alerted to this issue thanks to a tweet by one of the Egyptian blogosphere's leading open-source advocate, Alaa].
✪ Israeli Asks Abbas Not to Step Down - NYTimes.com | What a weird headline: the Israeli in question is the president of Israel, Shimon Peres (aka Skeletor, Evil Lord of Destruction). Not that knowing this makes the whole thing any less weird, although it is telling to see how much the Israelis like Abbas.
✪ Fatah al-Islam Connected to Israeli Elements- Lebanese Security Source Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | Really: Fatah al-Islam, connected to the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Americans, the Saudis and now the Israelis. I am beginning to wonder whether it even exists.
✪ The Dark Side of the Bright Side -- In These Times | I love Barbara Ehrenreich's books.
✪ The Associated Press: Islamic critics blast Beyonce on eve of Egypt show | Muslim Brothers attack "nudity concert".
✪ 23 CIA Officers Convicted in Italy, in Abstentia | For extraordinary rendition of Egyptian man.
✪ Middle East Bloggers: The Street Leads Online - Reports - Committee to Protect Journalists | CPJ report on bloggers in MENA, especially the rising use of emprisonment against them: "Individual bloggers face enormous threats; the medium as a whole faces significant challenges. Increasingly, governments are creating new laws to regulate the Internet and amending old ones to encompass online expression. Already authorities are exploiting the isolated nature of bloggers and the lack of institutional protections for online journalists. As the Iranian regime exhibited this year, governments are willing to take severe measures when they perceive a threat to their power."
✪ Holiday sales could launch e-book readers as mass-market must-haves | If you're interested in ebooks, this is a pretty good piece on the state of the industry. Has anyone tried Kindle downloading in Egypt? Is it restricted?
✪ Japanese contractors owed billions by Dubai firms - The National Newspaper | Dubai is a bad debtor.
✪ Waq al-Waq: The Big Question for Saudi Arabia | Who runs Saudi Arabia's Yemen policy?
✪ Obama's Failure in the Middle East | Stephen M. Walt | KA-POW: "I never thought I'd write the following words, but is it possible that Obama's handling of the I-P peace process might actually end up being worse than George Bush's?"
✪ Berman’s Response to Goldstone on House Gaza War-Crimes Resolution « The Washington Independent | The assholes who run Congress reply to Goldstone.
✪ Report: Mossad hacked Syrian computer to uncover nuke site - Haaretz - Israel News | Basic snooping software found super-classified info? Either this is not true or the Syrians are mega-stupid. But since the allegation is that Syria had a secret nuclear research facility, I'll lean towards the former - this was all bullshit from the beginning.
✪ ATTACKERMAN » Somewhere, Khaled Meshal Is Laughing | Obama messed up doubly with Goldstone as well as backing down on settlements. What's a Palestinian leader (any of them outside Hamas) to do?
(AFP) | Cabinet crisis over?
✪ Clinton has 'productive meeting' with Egypt on Mideast peace process - washingtonpost.com | Hosni Mubarak loves nothing more than being made to feel important. Clinton's entire trip to Cairo is about this: "Clinton attributed the apparent softening in Egypt's position as a response to her personal diplomacy, conducted over visits to four capitals in the region over the past five days. "I thought it was a very productive meeting," she told reporters traveling with her after the news conference, adding that it "shows the value of consultation and listening and sharing ideas and hearing the other side and putting forward your views and explaining.""
Hi, arabist (arabist). Habib El-Adly (ElAdly) is now following your updates on Twitter. Check out Habib El-Adly's profile here: http://twitter.com/ElAdlyHabib al-Adly, of course, is Egypt's interior minister.
Automatically posted links for January 6th:
- Report: FBI translator says Israel planted nuclear 'moles' in U.S. - Another twist the Larry Franklin affair / Israeli spy operation in US
- Interview with Khalil Enani - Author of new book on Muslim Brothers
- Egypt police torture mentally handicapped boy - Can a day pass without one of these stories?
- Egypt court jails three police in abuse case - Another conviction against police torturers
- al-Qaida Videos Now on Cell Phones - Bin Laden & co. develop multimedia distribution platforms