Worry about satellites, not SMSs

Much has been made over the last week of a decision by Egypt's National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) to require a license from SMS distributors. Some see it as a pre-electoral move targeting newspapers before parliamentary elections next month. The Minister of CIT, Tarek Kamel, did not help his case when making vague allusions to wanting to counter SMS messages that could be disruptive to the country

But there's been too much bandwagon-hopping to think this is part of a conspiracy to counter anti-government activism. SMS delivery services should be regulated, if only so that my number isn't shared by multiple businesses to announce their sales, latest clothing line, and all the other kind of junk I receive on my 10-year-old phone line in Cairo. The question is not whether the new regulations are bad — any country has the same kind of regulations — but whether the NTRA will now restrict the type of bodies who can use mass SMS delivery or give a license to every company that meets its technical criteria, as it should, without regard to who the customers of that company are — shops, political parties, etc.

Is it for instance acceptable that a political candidate in my district (Qasr al-Nil, in Central Cairo) to use information that must have been obtained from the telecom networks themselves to send a campaign message to everyone with a billing address in that district? How is private information regulated? I remember in 2005, everyone using the MobiNil network got a message to go out and vote on the day of the presidential election. Is that a legitimate use of the private information that is my phone number? Is it a type of campaigning that is allowed by the Electoral Commission? Those are the pertinent questions. Activists in any case don't usually hire SMS delivery companies to pass on the message.

A more urgent issue at the moment I only became aware of last night, having drinks with a friend from the news agencies, is that the licensing of companies that provide audio-video satellite linkage (the most famous is VideoCairo, which had already gotten in trouble for its work for al-Jazeera in recent years) will now have to obtain licenses from the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) rather than the NTRA. The ERTU is Egyptian state TV, or in other words the competitor to the companies that hire satlink companies' services. It made much more sense to have a technical body like the NTRA handle these licenses. Moreover, it seems that there is confusion about where to obtain such licenses. One man went to ERTU only to be told he had to go to Media Production City (MPC), the film and production studio outside of Cairo, where he was told that the satellite linkup trucks rented by the likes of al-Jazeera, CNN, etc. would not be able to leave the premises (rather defeating their point). 

That, to me, is much more of an indicator of wanting to restrict media and potential coverage of live events (such as electoral fraud and violence) than the new rules governing SMSs, which should be welcomed if implemented in a reasonable manner.

Update: AP has a story covering the latest media restrictions:

Critics say a sequence of new restrictions on journalists is intended to stifle Egypt's vibrant media landscape a month before parliamentary elections in the authoritarian country.

In the latest measure, the telecommunications regulator is canceling the permits of private companies providing live broadcast services in Egypt, requiring them to get new licenses from state television, several of the companies said Wednesday.

The government measures could be an attempt by authorities to tighten their grip on information and media commentary as Egypt's political scene becomes increasingly tense before the parliamentary vote and a presidential election next year.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.