Google is set to re-staff its Cairo office, which more or less went dormant in 2014, following the military coup that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in Egypt. The move comes against the backdrop of well-documented abuses by the Sisi government against dissidents and activists, which it facilitates using mass and targeted internet surveillance, and by blocking news, human rights, and blogging websites.
Google said it would begin recruiting full-time staff for the office after a meeting between Egyptian ministers and Google staff led by Google MENA head Lino Cattaruzzi, according to a June press release from the Egyptian government. The company also recently consulted with the Egyptian government on a data protection bill. And it is in talks to partner with the Egyptian government to expand its “Maharat min Google,” or “Skills From Google,” program, which has provided digital training for entrepreneurs through partner organizations over the past year. The expansion would be overseen by a government ministry.
Google’s renewed engagement with Egypt comes just a year after the company sparked outrage when The Intercept revealed that Google planned to develop a censored search engine for use in China, which it code-named Dragonfly. When Google had previously ended its search services in China in 2010, co-founder Sergey Brin referenced the government’s poor tolerance for dissent as a reason for the pullout. Executives say Dragonfly has been shelved, after harsh criticism from Google employees, advocacy groups, and the U.S. Congress.
The Cairo office will open full-time in September, according to a source who works at one of Google’s local partner companies, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the matter. The tech company is hiring a small staff to focus on customer sales, a Google spokesperson said.
Rights groups are concerned that a more permanent presence in the country will expose Google to added pressure from the Egyptian government, which has a history of using data collection and monitoring to punish dissidents, journalists, and human rights advocates.
“Re-opening an office in Egypt when the government is aggressively asking other internet companies to provide disproportionate access to their data sounds alarming,” said Katitza Rodriguez, the international rights director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Google has an obligation to respect human rights under international standards, Rodriguez added, and the company should disclose what steps it will take to safeguard them.
For over a decade, independent foreign companies like Google have proven crucial to Egyptians seeking to circumvent government control. In 2011, a viral Facebook page co-run by then-Google executive Wael Ghonim helped fuel the 18 days of protests that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, leading Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt to opine at the time that platforms like Facebook “change the power dynamics between governments and citizens.”
A Mubarak-era blogger told The Intercept that activists chose to host their blogs on Blogger because they felt confident that the Egyptian government couldn’t access Google’s servers. And after the internet was shut down at the height of the 2011 protests, Google devised a tool with Twitter that enabled Egyptians to tweet with voicemails to circumvent the blackout.
Google’s move followed Yahoo, which closed its Cairo office in late 2013, months after a bloody government crackdown on dissidents killed hundreds in a single day.
Google moved its Egypt operations to Dubai in 2014, though it has sometimes used its Egypt office for meetings and other business. At the time, Google did not publicly offer a reason for consolidating its regional offices in Dubai, where Twitter and Facebook are also based. Google’s move followed Yahoo, which closed its Cairo office in late 2013, months after a bloody government crackdown on dissidents killed hundreds in a single day. Now, the tech giant is set to deepen its involvement with a government that researchers say is unleashing the most brutal crackdown in the country’s recent history.
A report released last fall by Amnesty International said Egypt’s crackdown on expression had turned the country into an “open-air prison for critics,” citing numerous arrests of journalists, activists, and social media users.
“People are arrested for tweets, for Facebook posts, for giving their opinion about sexual harassment, for supporting a club, or most recently, for cheering for a football player during the Africa Cup games,” said Hussein Baoumi, an Amnesty International researcher.
Wael Abbas, an award-winning journalist, was arrested last year for his Facebook and Twitter posts on charges of “spreading false news,” “involvement in a terrorist group,” and “misuse of social media.” He had previously faced account shutdowns or suspensions from Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook, and YouTube, where he had documented instances of police brutality. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported after his arrest that prosecutors and state media appeared to be using his social media suspensions as evidence against him. He was jailed for seven months. And a new law passed last year treats social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers as news outlets, further exposing individual social media users to prosecution for “false news.” A 2018 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that Egypt imprisoned more journalists on “false news” charges than any other country.
Egypt’s crackdown on dissidents dovetails with its increasing use of mass and targeted surveillance. In 2016 and 2017, a group of prominent Egyptian nonprofit organizations were hit with a sophisticated phishing attack while they were defending themselves against state charges that they were receiving foreign funding to destabilize the government. An analysis by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights strongly suggested that the attack, which included attacks on Gmail accounts, was coordinated or supported by an Egyptian intelligence agency. Amnesty International identified a new wave of phishing attacks following a similar pattern earlier this year.
The state has also purchased the services and technology of top-notch spyware firms, including the Hacking Team, an Italian spyware manufacturer. In 2017, the Egyptian government appeared to intermittently block Google while trying to block Signal, an encrypted messaging service that had been sending its traffic through Google and other web domains to subvert blocks, a practice known as domain fronting. The disruption came during a period of sporadic internet disturbances that a government source told Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news site, were occurring because the government was configuring new mass surveillance software. Google and Amazon announced in 2018 that their cloud services would no longer support domain fronting.
There is evidence that tech companies operating in Egypt may be susceptible to pressure to reveal user data. In January, Uber users in Egypt saw service disruptions for weeks amid a long-running data dispute between Uber and the government. A few weeks later, Uber agreed to pay a value-added tax in Egypt that it had been shirking for nearly a year. The government had previously asked Uber in 2017 to provide access to “Heaven,” which displays live activity on the app, including Uber rides and customers’ personal data, which the company declined to do. The government had also offered Uber’s then-competitor Careem “preferential treatment” if it surrendered its user data.
A law passed last year now requires ride-sharing companies to provide user data to the government upon request, although it is unclear what data, if any, Uber has ultimately provided to Egypt. In 2015, the government blocked Facebook’s Free Basics service after the company refused to help the government conduct surveillance on the platform.
“Having access to independent communication means is extremely important,” Baoumi said, “particularly in Egypt right now, because of how much control the government exerts over all facets of life.”
Google is playing a more active role in Egypt in other ways too. It was one of two dozen international corporations working in Egypt that the government consulted on a data protection bill currently being weighed by Egyptian lawmakers. It is the first legislation in Egypt specifically regulating personal data, and it was passed by a parliamentary communication committee in March. Once it becomes law, it would regulate data ranging from an individual’s voice to their bank account number.
Google is also considering partnering with Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology on its “Maharat min Google” program, a Google spokesperson said. The program provides employment-focused digital skills training for Arabic speakers.
“We engage with policymakers to help them understand our business and to explore ways in which technology can improve people’s lives and fuel economic growth,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, it appears that the government is using its work with Google as part of its ongoing efforts to brand Egypt as a foreign investment haven. Press releases from government ministries after Google meetings portray the image of a close relationship with the company. Boosting foreign investment has been a cornerstone of the Sisi government’s strategy to improve the country’s post-uprising economy and generate revenue to manage its $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The state plans to invest roughly $7.2 million in building a tech-heavy “knowledge city,” a government minister announced last year.
“They try to use their successful business agreements as PR,” said Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “So they can use their agreement with a big company like Google to say they are open for business.”