Egypt cracks down on text messages

In what is widely seen as an attempt to stifle opposition activism in the run-up to next month's parliamentary election, the Egyptian authorities have have announced restrictions of the sending of text messages to multiple mobile phones.

News organisations that send out alerts to phone users have been told they must now get permission from the Ministry of Information and the Supreme Press Council before sending them, according to al-Masry al-Youm newspaper.

Political parties which have been licensed by the government will be allowed to seek permits to send messages – and, as might be expected, the ruling National Democratic Party has already been granted a such permit, according to AP's report.

This obviously gives the president's well-funded party a clear advantage. Meanwhile, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood (an unlicensed party) and Mohamed ElBaradei's reform movement – both of which regard text messages as an important tool for campaigning – will not be allowed to make use of them.

Messaging service providers – known as SMS aggregators – have been given a week to apply for licences to continue operating. They are being asked to pay LE500,000 ($87,000) for the permit, plus the same amount as a guarantee against violating the new regulations. It's also reported that the government will take 3% of their revenues to pay for policing the system.

Al-Masry al-Youm says:

"The new restrictions are not dissimilar to those recently enforced in other countries, such as Iran, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, all of which have banned SMS messages in an effort to curb popular mobilisation and collective action on the part of their political opponents."

In line with the government's policy of trying to control everything, the IT and communications minister, Tarek Kamel, says the move is simply intended to bring order to the SMS business.

"SMS services have become an industry," he said on Tuesday. "That’s why they must be properly regulated – so that we can protect it."

Playing down the political significance of the move, he suggested the aim was to prevent false religious edicts and "disinformation" that could affect the stock market.

The authorities are citing two recent outbreaks of sectarian tension to justify the crackdown – both of which they say were inflamed by mass text messaging.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 October 2010.