U.K. Complains to Egypt on Ordered Vodafone Messages

The U.K. government complained to Egypt after Vodafone Group Plc was ordered to send text messages seen to instigate violence as demonstrators demanded the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

U.K. Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt contacted the Egyptian ambassador in London to discuss the order to Vodafone after the company reached out to the government, the Foreign Office said last night. British Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday issued a statement calling the “abuse” of Internet and mobile-phone networks “unacceptable and disturbing.”

Egyptian authorities instructed the local mobile-network operators, which also include Etisalat and France Telecom SA’s Mobinil service, to send messages under emergency powers provisions. Vodafone, the world’s biggest mobile-phone operator, said yesterday that the messages were not written by the mobile- phone operators.

“The Armed Forces urge Egypt’s loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt,” said a Feb. 1 text message sent on Vodafone’s network and obtained by Bloomberg News.

A Vodafone spokesman declined to comment on the details of the messages the U.K.-based company was ordered to send. France Telecom said Mobinil is being given similar orders.

Vodafone shares rose 0.6 percent to 178.1 pence as of 10:33 a.m. in London trading today.

‘Neutrality Principle’

“Messages with army endorsement concerning national security and general safety were the only messages processed by Mobinil,” France Telecom said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “France Telecom strongly disapproves of any message of a political nature that runs against the neutrality principle which defines our role as a network operator.”

Representatives for Emirates Telecommunications Corp., known as Etisalat, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Egyptian Internet services were restored Feb. 2 after protests by demonstrators calling for the ouster of President Mubarak had led to five days of closure. Mobile-phone voice services at units of Vodafone and Mobinil were restored Jan. 29.

Vodafone has protested to the authorities that the current situation is “unacceptable,” the company said. “We have made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator.”

Egypt’s largest opposition group yesterday rejected talks with President Mubarak after at least six protesters were killed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square overnight, and vowed to stay at the scene of the fighting until he steps down.

Street Fighting

Fighting broke out again yesterday in Tahrir Square, where the army set up a barrier after more than 800 people were injured in earlier clashes. Al Arabiya television reported heavy gunfire from around the square. Mubarak loyalists rode horses and camels into Tahrir, swinging whips and clubs, and both sides hurled rocks, bottles and concrete chunks.

Vodafone Chief Executive Officer Vittorio Colao said yesterday that text-message services in Egypt had not yet been restored. “It’s not in our power, it will be restored when we are authorized to restore it,” Colao said on a conference call with reporters.

Egypt has one of the most advanced telecommunications markets in the Middle East and Africa. About 95 percent of Egyptians, or 74.9 million subscribers, are clients of a mobile phone network, according to analysts at Cairo-based AlembicHC.

“This is a country where there is still a curfew and extraordinary legislation in place,” Colao said yesterday, adding that antennae had been damaged as part of the protests. “We are in a continuous dialogue with government.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Browning in London jbrowning9@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Vidya Root at vroot@bloomberg.net.

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