Libya – Let’s get our facts straight

Posted: April 1, 2011 in General information

Before we embark on a crusade to discover the technological methods and means to bypass the saboteurs of modern day telecommunications it’s important that we establish some realities about pre-crisis telecoms in Libya:

Whilst Libya has one of the best fixed line telecommunication infrastructures in Africa (Budde, 2011), the internet saturation rate remains at about 6%, comparatively low even to that of it’s defecting neighbours Egypt (at 25%) and Tunisia (at 33%), according to the CIA Worldfact book. It is also important to state that both mainline and cellular telecoms in Libya are state-owned and somewhat poorly maintained – telecoms in Africa leaves a lot to be desired! If we take this poor internet saturation rate at face value we might ask ourselves: ‘Why on earth would Gaddafi bother severing the internet? He must know it’s such a small number of people – he does own it after all! And why would he do this when it could have such crippling effects on the economy and his own personal wealth?’ The reality is that whilst internet penetration is low those who are most likely to have access to the internet are young, affluent and educated.  And as Margaret Mead, the American Anthropologist, is famously quoted as saying ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’. The young have the time and the impetus to use internet based information to create change, especially when coupled with the catalysts of rising unemployment and poverty (According to CIA world factbook 30% of employable Libyans are unemployed and one third of the population lives on or below the poverty line).    Also those who are educated tend to be both credible and respected amongst the community.  It is also important to note that crippling the internet and telecoms generally means crippling the life lines for the revolution; Without vital communication, aid agencies, hospitals and those offering primary care for the injured and displaced can not so effectively or easily be of help, and this too may be a motivation for the regime to hamper communication paths.

But how can such a small group of people, incite a widespread uprising?  We know that broadcast media in Libya is also state-owned and very guarded, and that it has been a tool not only for censorship, but also for propaganda to create uncertainty for the general population about the facts and realities of the revolution. Censorship too has been applied across the internet in Libya;  The CPJ (Committee for the Protection of Journalists ) reported: “The media dutifully reflect state policies and do not allow news or views critical of Qaddafi or the government. Satellite television and the Internet are available, but the government blocks undesirable political Web sites. The Internet is one of the few avenues for independent writers and journalists, but the risks are exceedingly high. (2006)”. However, whilst it is only a small percentage of the population that have access to the internet and censorship stands in the place of free and fair information, the mobile phone is being used across the Middle East as blanket tool for the spread of information about the revolution; The mobile saturation rate in Libya is above 100% (CIA world factbook, 2011).   If well organised, information can spread from one to many, via SMS, in a small period of time and before authoritarian regimes have enough time to mobilise to stop the spread of the information (Doyle D., and P. Meier, 2009).  And like the Green Revolution in Iran, the successor to this current and amazing tidal wave of people-centred change across the Middle East, this revolution has been a cellular one. 

Mobile communication has been effective in the timely and widespread transfer of information between people and its significance can not be disputed.  All said we must remember that the mobile industry is not free from sabotage, being also controlled by members of the Libyan oligarchy and that the mobile phone, whilst seemingly the most effective medium for the spread of information about the revolution can also, conversely, be condemnatory in that linked to each individual mobile phone is a wealth of personal information and new phone tracking programmes help authoritarian regimes to track the movements of citizen and can help in incriminating and incarcerating defectors of the state – mobiles are not an anonymous way of communicating by any stretch of the imagination.  And mobile phones, like broadcast media, can also be used by regimes to spread propaganda.

The internet therefore, whilst not being necessarily widespread in use, plays a vital role as a source of outside and unbiased information for those living in closed societies. However, it is important that we understand its role as a companion to other more widespread technologies, such as mobile phones, for the timely passage of information through this crisis.

Some other things to consider: How do people use the information they receive via SMS and how do they validate it?  How has radio & pan-arab satallite laid the foundations for widespread acceptance of a paradigm shift? (A topic to be covered in a future blog)

For further information on the topic visit:

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold http://www.smartmobs.com/book/book_summ.html

Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/

Oxford Internet Institute http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/ – Facebook Resistance? Understanding the role of the Internet in the Arab Revolutions http://webcast.oii.ox.ac.uk/?view=Webcast&ID=20110328_348

Manchester University’s Development Informatics Department, Working Papers, Internet Usage Under Authoritarian Regimes: http://www.sed.manchester.ac.uk/idpm/research/publications/wp/di/di_wp43.htm

CIA World Factbook – Libya https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ly.html

OpenNetwork Initiative http://opennet.net/

Stay tuned for: The Sound of Silence: how governments cut/stifle internet & mobile telephone access.

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