The relative decline of the United States in the 21st century is a popular topic, but I would argue as long as nerds from Google can do stuff like this over a weekend fueled by American products like red bull and candy bars, perhaps the same American ingenuity that fueled the United States through World War II is still alive and well today.

Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.

We worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow, a company we acquired last week, to make this idea a reality. It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to

We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there.

Posted by Ujjwal Singh, CoFounder of SayNow and AbdelKarim Mardini, Product Manager, Middle East & North Africa

We must think clearly about what we are seeing here, even if it is not popular to do so. Obviously America is a techno-centric culture, so it is easy to see how this type of technology would immediately be appealing to modern, young Americans and as it becomes more well known in Egypt – likely appealing to them as well. I originally learned about this technology from an American sailor who was organizing volunteers on Twitter to act as interpreters (and having success btw) for this service. Due primarily to the viral nature of social media and by leveraging the global popularity of Google, it is only a matter of time until the youth in Egypt become aware of the technology available.

How does it work? Well, someone inside Egypt calls one of the numbers listed, leaves a message, and the message gets recorded and Tweeted to this Twitter feed where a recording of the voice mail is made available to everyone to listen. The retweets by others in the feed are interpretations of the feed into English from a specific voice recording. This is a very clever technology intended to directly circumvent the Egyptian government policies that are attempting to reduce information access. Is there impact associated with the technology? Surely not yet, but the tech itself is less than 24 hours old and most people unlikely realize what they have. The options are many, and for me, I’ll admit the first time I listened to a few messages on SayNow’s website I was immediately reminded of the BBC radio broadcasts to the Maquis in 1944 France…

If we are going to give serious analysis to what is happening here, we must examine the complicated issues responsibly and ask the difficult questions.

What do we make of an American corporation (Google was ranked #102 by Fortune in 2010) basically declaring war on the government policies of a strategic partner of the United States by inventing a new technology and offering free services to the political opposition of the Egyptian government? Whether one agrees or disagrees with what Google is doing – when you remove the morality element of Google’s action that can easily impact ones opinion – we are left with a few American corporations actively supporting a revolution as a free service against the current government of a strategic partner of the United States.

Think about that for a second…

Google is waging war leveraging bandwidth as a weapon. Think about how silly our international treaties governing broadcast communications look when a handful of companies like Google, SayNow, and Twitter can turn a single node like a cell phone into a voice broadcast to the entire globe as a weekend project. Make no mistake, bandwidth is most definitely a weapon, and the DoD needs to be thinking carefully about how this weapon might be used against our enemies. For example, North Korea would likely see broad access to bandwidth as a very dangerous weapon worth going kinetic over, meaning carefully considered rules of engagement for bandwidth as a weapon are necessary when bandwidth is used as a weapon.

That thought should trouble those who give serious geopolitical strategic thought to the issue, because in most cases a corporation like Google can use the bandwidth of the entire internet more effectively than an organization like the DoD can use the bandwidth of their entire network, and yet, somehow I doubt corporations carefully consider the rules of engagement when using bandwidth as a weapon.

At some level, one might describe this as the Wikileaks issue in reverse. Wikileaks leverages bandwidth and cloud technology to insure continuous access to information in support of broadcasting government information to the entire world. Google and partners are leveraging cell phone technologies to insure continuous access to information in support of broadcasting anti-government information to the entire world. The United States government has not, in my opinion, handled Wikileaks very well. When one considers the geopolitical ramifications, not to mention the strategic ramifications, of American technology corporations like Google and Twitter waging a private war on the government of Egypt – one might begin to ask what this box looks like in 5 years that good ole’ Pandora is opening?

Is what Google, SayNow, and Twitter doing wrong or illegal? Is it the harmless stuff of weekend armchair warriors? On one hand I readily admit to being very proud that a bunch of American nerds would come up with a clever piece of technology to support a democratic movement against a dictatorship, and on the other hand I know I am seeing modern methods of non-state cyber warfare applied towards a political purpose against a state – leveraging the cyber medium where warfare is often difficult to identify or visualize until it is far too late. Bandwidth is a powerful weapon, and while it is unclear how powerful Speak-to-Tweet is or will ever be, it is important for us to note it here as a sort of genesis, or prototype capability in the development of bandwidth technologies that can and almost certainly will be used in future 21st century state and non-state level information warfare.

Posted by galrahn in Cyber, Innovation

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  • You neglected to mention that Google-Saynow did this in response the the Egyptian government (our strategic partner as you reminded us) pulling the plug on ALL communications; phone, email, etc.

    That’s the democratic action of a strategic partner? And I believe they’ve done it again today.

    Yes, bandwidth is a weapon, and so is education. It seems the Egyptian people are using both effectively to wage a remarkably effective and peaceful change of government against a clearly unpopular autocrat.

    The real story here is their Army announcing they would stand down. Kudos to them – and to our military who taught thousands of Egyptian officers attending Carlisle and C&S about governance and rule of law.

  • Mark Wroblewski

    Last time i checked, Red Bull was an Austrian product.

  • Andrew,

    Our own government is discussing an internet kill switch, so I’m not sure you have a relevant point other than from a cause and effect perspective. Motive? OK, but aren’t internet kill switches the sovereign right of governments? That is the argument our government is making to us the American people – and btw the international community as well.

    The real story in Egypt is the whole story, not any single part. The real story that I’m focused on here is how a non-state entity, specifically a handful of American corporations, have unilaterally engaged in the political affairs of a nation state during a domestic uprising.

    If governments can cut off communications as a sovereign right, then it is Google, Twitter, and SayNow who are in violation of the rule of law standards, and by the very same definitions we use in international circles including the United Nations – these companies might even qualify as state sponsored cyber-terrorists with the US being the sponsoring state.

  • Flashman

    Is free speech a weapon?

    Sure is. Why would so many countries ban it if it wasn’t so compelling?

    Google/SayNow has done nothing more illegal than Gutenberg did in inventing the printing press. They’ve constructed the means to communication. For the most part, like Google, Gutenberg profited by his invention…but he was also exiled. Bandwidth isn’t so much a weapons as it is a means to enable free speech and assembly. As far as I know, free speech and assembly are not inasmuch the purview of nation-states as they are the rights of the people that nation-states protect.

  • Camp

    I have to agree with what Flashman wrote.

    But for me, simply equating “bandwidth” to a weapon, or the barrel of a gun. In a way, trivializes the pursuits of Freedom, Ideas, and Ingenuity.

    Google’s actions also remind me of another inventor in history & the First Postmaster General under the Continental Congress… Benjamin Franklin. Who’s work to streamline the colonial postal system. Also aided the spread of information for another revolution.

    IMHO. It is not Google who has declared War… It is Google who has stood up for the Rights of others. Change is inevitable… avoiding it is only temporary.

  • Byron

    Our government better think long and hard about the “kill switch”. That’s denying us freedom of speech and right to virtual assembly (yes, I expect a good lawyer can make that argument).

  • Jim Mac

    waiting to see if / when google grows a pair big enuf to try this in China. Google risks very little in Egypt, maybe I’m too cynical.

  • Disagree on this one, Byron. The government may not infringe our free speech, and may not deny us the right to peaceably assemble, but it is under no obligation to provide a facility for such speech and assembly.

  • James Potter

    Very interesting post. With the United Citizen ruling and the present case before the Supreme Court on privacy issues for corporations, our legal system is quickly providing the corporate form a “super citizen” form. These corporate giants will do their own bidding (notice how Siemens presumably cooperated with our government on the Stuxnet worm? That might be at odds to their government but the commercial market in the United States is important). I also see google trying to ease some of its hypocricy in China over censorship by doing this act. Corporations are profit making operations; they can also reflect the wishes of their majority owners or their sovereign. Interesting times.

  • Don dyer

    Galrahn gets it, and hopefully US Cyber Command gets it. Several US Corporations are engaging a government in a form of cyber-warfare. No matter which side you choose, they have taken a stand to support free speech that may be counter-productive to the current political stratagem of the USGovt in dealing with a partner nation. This is a genesis of something ominously new.

  • Lamar Spells

    I seriously doubt that Google viewed itself as intervening in the statecraft of sovereign nations when it made speak2tweet available, but that is certainly what they were doing. Were their actions ‘wrong’? Is it ever wrong to support the establishment of democratic forms of government? We are Americans and we believe that the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government and that we express our will through genuine, fair elections.

    Could there have been unintended consequences? You bet. But to argue that Americans should somehow be restrained from aiding millions of people seeking nothing more than self-governance is akin to endorsing the ancient legacy of the Treat of Westphalia: the idea that governments are completely sovereign to police and rule their people as they see fit without regard to any external moral or legal restraints.

    As Americans, endorsing this type of thinking undermines our values and leaves us practicing the same failed interventionist, realpolitik foreign policy of triangulation, regional balance of power and support for unsavory oppressors of democracy that led to the current situation in Iran. Trust in American values and stay true to them. We already know where taking immoral, unprincipled ‘shortcuts’ that conflict with our values will lead us.

  • Mark Matis

    While the US government still OFFICIALLY supports Egypt, that is NOT the policy of the Muslim in Chief. As such, Google is merely implementing the preferred policy of their Fearless Leader. The REAL question is whether they will be willing to do the same when the revolution is NOT supported by The One. Such as the upcoming events in the US.

    My bet is that they are nothing more than left wing swill who should rot where they belong. Much like most of FedGov “Law Enforcement”.

  • Oldfart

    Ken Adams doesn’t think the government has to provide facilities for us to exercise our rights to free speech and assmbly. I agree. The internet isn’t provided by the government. Like most things we have learned to depend on, it’s been developed by private means and is now administered by the government. Does the government have the power to deny us the opportunity to assemble on private property and speak to one another just because we do it in cyberspace? It may have such POWER but it has no such RIGHT.

  • Mike M.

    I think the other question that needs asking is what states will do to counter corporate power.

    History is clear on one thing…if you become a rival to the King, expect to get your head cut off. Businesses that rival state power either cooperate or are attacked. And states have a preponderance of force. In a shooting war, they win.

  • Flashman

    A multinational corporation potentially being a factor in the “security environment” of the world? New? Gimme a break. MNCs play various roles – major and minor – in the wars that we’ve fought and will continue to fight. MNCs have vast amount of influence politically and are often characters in the broader scope of war….Google is not the first such entity to take a political stand or influence U.S. foreign policy (Bananas, anyone?)

    I see this less in the realm of cyber — as Google isn’t attacking the cyber infrastructure — than one of choosing to assist subversion of Mubarak’s regime by enabling free speech. Yes, like radio, worldwide telephone networks, and cable television, this is going to be yet another way in which the environment of war can be shaped. Should it be illegal? Wow. I don’t think most Americans would want to go there on an issue of free speech.

  • James

    2 points of interest.

    – though clearly born in the idea of getting access to information where there was none, the service has been used by both sides in this conflict and is available globally; there are lots of posts from outside egypt, some unrelated.

    – the folks behind it were 2 brits, 2 indian-americans and a dutchman.