Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Talk like an Egyptian

The 1987 Bangles’ hit ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ might have been adopted as an inspirational song during the recent protest in Egypt, it was not so much walking that gave the world a glimpse of what was happening in the country.

On 28 January, the Egyptian Government abruptly blocked all internet access, bringing online traffic in the country to a standstill. Hours after net activity in Egypt dropped to zero, Google realised this was a unique opportunity to try out SayNow, the voice technology company it had acquired only days earlier. SayNow’s engineers and the social networking website Twitter worked non-stop over the weekend and, as a result, a new service which managed to circumvent the internet ban was launched on 31 January. A system called ‘Speak-to-tweet’ gave Egyptians the chance to post messages online without the need for a computer or an internet connection. Via international telephone numbers in the US, Switzerland and Bahrain (+16504194196, +390662207 294 and +973161 99855), callers can leave a voice message. The spoken message is then converted into an electronic message and published as a ‘tweet’. Conversely, people are able to listen to messages by calling the same phone numbers, an effective way to obtain information about protest times and venues.

The new service might have frightened some authoritarian regimes around the world, it certainly made a huge impression on the e-commerce industry. Surely, the conversion of a voice message into an electronic post already existed, but never before was it carried out on such a large scale, with thousands calling in at the same time. Google and Twitter could not have wished for a better way to promote their new service.
Many industry specialists speculated on the net and in European and American media whether the voice service should be seen as a major step forward in the development of electronic information exchange. In the near future, will it be possible to send an email or statement from a deserted mountain or remote island, without the need for a computer or internet connection? As long as there is a (satellite) phone and one can speak, preventing the posting of online messages will almost be impossible. The system could benefit certain groups in society as well; think of the blind, the dyslexic, the illiterate and the elderly.

Naturally, legal issues will arise. To leave a voice message, for example, there is no need for an account, so everyone can say anything about anyone without knowing who said what, and this can have consequences if Twitter’s filters do not pick up certain comments. Will the introduction of a mobile phone account or the need to have your number registered be an idea for the future? This needs to be worked out, but the system has potential, since ‘Speak-to-tweet’ has made the industry realise this new technology creates commercial opportunities and makes it much harder to silence an active internet community, as long as there is a phone.

Published previously in a London based publication. Copyrights apply. Michiel Willems (c) 2010