Early Internet Governance in Egypt: A Conversation with Baher Esmat, Part II


Access to Knowledge

2021-05-05 12:40:49 1712 0

Baher Esmat was part of the Egyptian Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) which brought the Internet to Egypt. As part of our center’s work on Inclusive Internet Governance, Stefanie Felsberger spoke to him about the Internet’ history in Egypt. In part one, we spoke about Egypt’s first steps online and how access to the Web spread through the country. In part two we focus on how the Internet has been governed and regulated. Stefanie Felsberger: Last time we spoke about how the Internet came to Egypt and we briefly touched upon how a framework regulating the Internet and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) developed. You explained that Telecom Egypt offered infrastructure and bandwidth, IDSC and the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) acted as the country’s main gateway for the non-academic sector, and that government entities and ISPs received bandwidth through IDSC. Finally, you mentioned that the UN continued to provide Internet access to academia. Could you sketch out for us what happened in the following years? Baher Esmat: This model continued for almost 4-5 years, until 1999 when the Ministry of Communication Information Technology (MCIT) was inaugurated. The ministry assumed a leadership role, not only in developing a national strategy for telecommunication infrastructure services, but also in developing Internet servers, and taking the Internet in Egypt to the next level. One of their first initiatives was a review of the current framework for ISPs in Egypt. There were more than 200 ISPs across the entire country. Most companies were in their early days, operating out of an apartment or maybe ten which were connected to the nearest exchange of Telecom Egypt. Those models were not by any means scalable. MCIT started to look at these issues and in 2003 they issued the Telecommunication Regulatory Act, which also defined more clearly the role of the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA). The NTRA had started to issue licenses for high speed Internet. There were three categories: Class A and B were meant for large ISPs, and Class C for small ISPs that could not afford to build nationwide infrastructure. Class A licenses allow an ISP to own infrastructure and direct access to international bandwidth (through TE Data as is the case for all classes). Class B ISPs retain the right to own infrastructure. Initially they could only gain access to international gateways through class A members but that changed after a while making the distinction between Class A and B minimal. Class C ISPs were seen as resellers to class A and B. They only partake in retail Internet Services. Back then if you wanted to connect to the Internet, you used to dial up from your home to through your landline and then connect to the Internet through an ISP. We used to pay both the Internet subscription fee for the ISP and the telephone bill. If you were on the line for two minutes, you paid for two minutes; ten minutes, you paid for ten. In 2002, the ministry worked on an initiative to achieve Internet access for everyone: the Free Internet Initiative. The initiative suggested a revenue sharing model between ISPs and Telecom Egypt. They created short numbers for Internet access. For example, you call 7777777 for Telecom Egypt to dial in and you would only pay for the telephone receipt, depending on how much time you spend on the line. Telecom Egypt would then settle the bill with the different ISPs. The initiative made accessing the Internet the same price as a normal phone call and helped tremendously to increase access. It was followed by the Broadband Initiative, launched in 2004. ISPs started to offer high speed connections to end users, and soon after ADSL and broadband connections were accessible from private rooms. SF: So the Ministry and NTRA were seminal in developing Egypt’s connection to the Internet and quite successful with their initiatives to increase Internet access. How did these initiatives come about? It seems like the initiatives must have required substantial coordination between the private sector and the governmental sector as well as experts in the field of Internet Governance. Did the multi stakeholder model, which is often applied in Internet Governance, have any bearing on how laws were made, or initiatives developed? And could you explain multi stakeholderism to our readers? BE: Alright, so the multi stakeholderism as a model means that we have multiple stakeholders taking part in a process. They take part in implementation of a law or initiative, they take part in the discussion shaping the law or initiative. The specific model varies from one case to another, and from one country to another, so there isn’t one single multi stakeholder model. But the important thing is that in any process, especially in our field of Internet politics, the different stakeholders get to share their views because the Internet affects every single stakeholder or every single person using or not using the Internet. So, it’s important that while talking about policies to shape or reshape the Internet, Internet technologies, Internet policies that we have this multi stakeholder approach in our minds. In Egypt, during the early days we had a sort of multi stakeholder model where everyone used to be at the table brainstorming about this new phenomenon and how to deal with it. This approach continued to some extent after the establishment of MCIT in 1999 because the same team that used to be at IDSC was now in the ministry. They used to invite everyone from the community to participate and organized weekly meetings to discuss, initiatives like the Free Internet initiativeor One Computer for Every Student. These initiatives did not come from MCIT in isolation but from the many interactions or discussions with the community. This is the kind of multi stakeholder model that helped the whole sector to evolve back then. SF: It seems that this approach might be having a come-back? If we look at the recent ride-sharing legislation, Uber and Careem were definitely consulted during the legislative process and so were taxi drivers. Finally, let’s talk about the role of international and intergovernmental institutions in Internet Governance. Due to the international nature of the Internet, these bodies are important because they set standards and policies for everyone. Can you explain how Egypt interacted with bodies such as ICANN or the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)? BE: One of the very first international engagements between the Egyptian community and the international community was through the Internet Society (ISOC) and its local chapter in Egypt. The Internet Society (ISOC) as an organization was established in 1992 and one of its main goals was to promote the use of the Internet all over the world. It also aimed to develop technical capacities in the various regions around the world, so all countries would have local offices with experts who are able to develop Internet infrastructure at the national level. One of the main activities of the Internet Society was to establish chapters in different countries and Egypt was one of the early countries in the region to establish an ISOC chapter. One of the great things about the ISOC chapter back then was that it gathered community members together. The discussions about establishing high speed Internet connections started with those meetings. It was almost a multi stakeholder process without even using the terminology. The term wasn’t popular back then, but the idea was to have everyone at the table – from the government to the private sector, academia to civil society – to try to brainstorm and develop something that was entirely new back then because the Internet itself was very new. That was the first experience in terms of international exposure, and then came ICANN. ICANN itself was established in 1998 and their mission was related to coordinating the technical resources that make the Internet work. ICANN works on domain names (such as .com, .net, .edu) and numbers (IP addresses that are important for any device to be connected to have one of those unique numbers). ICANN coordinates the technical and policy aspects of these resources. When ICANN was established, the same team at IDSC/RITSEC engaged with ICANN because they had participated in the early stages of the discussions leading to the establishment of ICANN. When ICANN wanted to hold a meeting in Africa and the Middle East, Cairo was the place and we hosted one of the early ICANN meetings near 2000. When ICANN established a committee for governments to be represented at ICANN – to be able to provide advice on public policy issues – it was also again the same team of the IDSC that was responsible. This is the connection between IDSC, MCIT and the international community, but more importantly, the non-government community in Egypt were also part of these discussions from the beginning.