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Egypt Cracks Down On Free Facebook Service


We're heading to Egypt now, where the government last week suddenly shut down a Facebook program that provides free but limited access to the Internet through its app and online partners. The government says it was a licensing issue, but others say it appears to be part of a widening crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Free Basics was launched in Egypt about two months ago. Three-million people were using it to get online. One-million of them had never accessed the Internet before. Then the government shut it down. An official from Egypt's telecommunications ministry told Reuters the permit was not renewed and the closure is not related to security concerns. But experts say it appears the suspension is part of the expanding efforts to stifle dissent ahead of the anniversary of the uprising that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. This year, Freedom House, a D.C.-based democracy advocacy group, listed Egypt as not free in its report on freedom of the net. Adrian Shahbaz is a research analyst at Freedom House.

ADRIAN SHAHBAZ: While no websites are actually blocked, there is an increasing crackdown on any type of dissent against the government and its policies.

FADEL: He says that's evident in the number of Facebook users arrested in the past year over posts about faith, sexual orientation or state policies. He says in the past week, three Facebook group administrators were arrested and accused of inciting protests against state institutions. Now, Free Basics is controversial. Facebook says the goal is to give Internet to those who don't have access. But it was recently stopped in India over concerns that as an Internet gatekeeper, Facebook's Free Basics program violates net neutrality - the concept of unfettered access to the Internet. Shahbaz says he doesn't think that was the case in Egypt.

SHAHBAZ: In the very local context in Egypt, it comes at a time when there's a crackdown on online dissent and on tools that are used for rallying people to protest.

FADEL: But Egyptians we reached who used Free Basics weren't particularly angry about its closure. They said it barely worked anyway. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.