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Linking voice mails to Twitter gets around Internet blackout
9:22 p.m., Sunday, February 6, 2011
SANFRANCISCO | Even before his first day on the job at Google, Ujjwal Singh was trying to figure out how to use his passion for the spoken word and the company’s technological prowess to help Egyptians bypass government efforts to muzzle the massive protests there.
Mr. Singh, 38, helped start an online service that lets fans share voice messages with the likes of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. Google bought the startup on Jan. 25, and a Google product team leader trying to figure out a way around Egypt‘s recent Internet blackout asked him for help before he reported to work.
A weekend of brainstorming and programming later, Speak2Tweet was born a service that lets people call a phone number and leave a message, then posts a link to the message to Twitter.
It enabled Egyptians to communicate even as the regime of President Hosni Mubarak cut Internet and cell phone services for days, trying to squelch furious protests in the streets of Cairo demanding an end to Mr. Mubarak‘s three decades of authoritarian rule.
By the time Mr. Singh started his job on Monday, his service already was part of the uprising.
“He designed, built and launched his first product before he started at Google, which is now our all-time record,” said Steve Crossan, a Google product manager who has been working at the Internet search leader for five years.
Almost 2,900 spoken tweets had been posted as of Friday afternoon on the Twitter account @speak2tweet. Some of the heaviest volume came after access to both Twitter and the Internet was restored in Egypt last week. The alternative method of tweeting has turned into a forum for longer-form expression because the voice recordings aren’t confined to Twitter‘s 140-character limit.
Another Twitter account, @AliveInEgypt, has been set up to transcribe the messages, which are mostly in Arabic, into text. An Internet radio station also is playing the voice recordings at http:// egypt.periszkopradio.hu.
The service has been used to express outrage, indignation, fear, exhilaration and pleas for help in the fight to oust Mr. Mubarak. “This corrupt regime must be eliminated,” said one of the translated tweets on AliveInEgypt. Another said: “For all our Arab Brothers, for all the men in Tahrir Square. Please help us, stand with us, if you abandon us we will die.”
One woman, speaking in English, said it would take more than an Internet blackout to silence her. “The last time when they did this, I was completely freaked out,” she said. “I was so scared that they are going to, like, shoot us all, and nobody would know about us. This time I am not scared at all. I feel like I want to tell them, ‘Bring it on.’ ”
There is no way to verify that every tweet came from the site of the protests, or even from Egypt. When the service can trace the country code of the call, it adds a note, or “hashtag,” specifying the location.
The service’s use was limited by the very problem that created it: Without Internet access, most Egyptians didn’t know Speak2Tweet existed, said Jillian York, a project coordinator for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society in Harvard University.
Even so, it provided a vital link between Egypt and the rest of the world, said Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Project on Global Internet Freedom. As word of the service spreads, Miss York expects it to attract more voice messages because only about one-fourth of Egypt‘s population has Internet access.
“It’s important for activists and companies to do everything they can to keep the channels of communication open when a government is trying to shut them down,” Miss Wong says.
The service got its start Jan. 28, when Mr. Crossan began to wonder how people might be able to get their messages out to a mass audience without the help of Internet or text messaging on mobile phones.
Mr. Crossan said he wasn’t interested in making a political statement; he just wanted to tackle a complex problem that also might further Google‘s crusade to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.”
So Mr. Crossan contacted a former Google colleague, Katie Stanton, who now oversees Twitter‘s international services. She referred him to Benjy Weinberger, another former Google employee, who is a Twitter engineer. The two men spent the rest of Friday swapping ideas through instant messages and e-mail.