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Shedding light on Vodafone's digital darkness

Unhealthy relationships between telecoms and governments must be scrutinised.

A company like Vodafone is well aware that its AGM is the kind of place that will attract some less than friendly faces on the doorstep. Guilty conscience? Indeed.

On Tuesday morning, not one but two protest groups turned up to Vodafone's AGM in London, which says something about its ethical credentials.

UK Uncut arrived at 9am, back to the company they spent their early days campaigning against due to Vodafone's avoidance of over £6bn of UK tax payments. "The maximisation of shareholder value," according to Vodafone's website, "will generally involve the minimisation of taxation."

Such minimisation is the result of blatant corporate-government cronyism and UK Uncut protests have swept across the UK to highlight the hypocrisy of this in the face of stringent austerity measures.

By 11.30am, Access and Fair Pensions were on the scene, asking Vodafone about their role in the recent Middle East uprisings. This is an important question.

For a brief moment early in 2011, the global media shone a spotlight on Egypt's corrupt governance. Former president Hosni Mubarak was at the centre of this, a powerful leader who fell without grace when he could no longer maintain control over those he dominated.

What the early stages in the Arab Spring also made apparent was the unhealthily close relationship between telecommunications companies ("telecoms") and the Egyptian government. Vodafone provides a perfect example. The company shut down its networks as online organising took off, arguing that it had no choice but to comply with government orders under the terms of its operating license agreement. It also sent out pro-government messages on behalf of the Egyptian regime, including:

The Armed Forces asks Egypt's honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honour and our precious Egypt.

The role of the telecoms in the attempt to suppress the uprising must be criticised on two counts: the manipulation of communication channels and -- what emerged later -- the tracking of pro-democracy demonstrators. The toxic corporate-government relationship that UK Uncut wants to bring to light on our own doorstep has worrying parallels with Mubarak's regime from that perspective.

Like UK Uncut's protests, social media played a critical role in the Egyptian uprising. How do we know? Because the person against whom the people were rebelling shut down just about all communications channels making online organising possible. You know you're onto a good thing (for "good" read "powerful", for "thing" read "tool of resistance") when the dictator you're fighting goes into panic clamp-down mode.

What goes around comes around. The same technology that enabled people to get together was used against them when they started to become a credible threat. However, the creativity and entrepreneurship that enabled those tools to be so useful are the same skills that enable further forms of resistance. Organisations such as Access play an important role in challenging Vodafone whitewash.

Executive Director of Access Brett Solomon:

Contrary to the chairman's claims, Vodafone is the world's largest mobile operator and does have power to influence the licensing arrangements. To be prepared for troubled digital waters ahead, they must adopt the action plan we have put forward today so that they don't have to make the choice between staff protection and shutting down the internet. We look forward to meeting with Vittorio Colao, the CEO, to discuss the audit and the adoption of the plan.

The Arab Spring as a Twitter Revolution? No, otherwise the revolt would have stopped when the tweets went silent, which it certainly did not. But ask whether social media helped coordinate mass decentralised action in the same way it has in the UK since the announcement of the spending cuts and the answer is a resounding #yes #yes #yes.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley