Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World. This is our first edition.
In early June, shortly after hosting the World Economic Forum and the International Press Institute’s annual conference, Jordanian authorities initiated a ban on unlicensed news sites that activists had feared would come. According to Jordanian media organization 7iber, amendments made to the Press and Publications Law in September 2012 required Jordanian news websites to register with authorities or face censorship. The amendments also included articles that would “hold online news sites accountable for the comments left by their readers, prohibiting them from publishing comments that are deemed “irrelevant” or “unrelated” to the article,” a change that caused several sites to turn off their comments sections.
Over 300 sites are now blocked as a result of the ban, including several that fall outside of the parameters of the regulation, among them Al Jazeera (based in Qatar) and Penthouse Magazine. On July 1, 7iber found its own website added to the list, and stated on Facebook:
If the Press and Publication Department decided that 7iber.com needs to get licensed – which is against all their public statements about blogs – they were supposed to officially inform us of this decision and give us 90 days before blocking the website, according to their law (Article 49, paragraphs A-1, and A-2).
7iber was blocked today by a simple memo from the Press and Publication Department to the Telecom Regulatory Commission, which in turn gave its directives to ISPs. This happened without any due process or formal notification to 7iber, in yet another demonstration that this law serves as a tool for the government to arbitrarily stifle freedom of expression online.
The Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA) has spoken out against the ban:
JOSA calls on the government to reverse its decision, and to review the modified Press and Publications law, and has implored decision makers to preserve the integrity and the inherent openness of the Internet, keeping it free of all forms of censorship and surveillance.
JOSA has also published a helpful infographic detailing the history of Jordanian Internet censorship.
Several Jordanian groups are making a concerted effort to fight back against the new regulations. 7iber has issued a guide to circumventing the blocks. A civil society collective has begun work on the Jordanian Internet Charter, a comprehensive bill of law aimed at protecting human rights online, inspired by Brazil's Marco Civil.
The Telecom Regulatory Commission sent an informal inquiry to ISPs asking them about their technical ability to block the IM application Whatsapp, but later denied any plans to ban its usage.
In other news, the Guardian recently reported that Jordan is among the top five countries surveilled under the United States National Security Agency's Boundless Informant program.
In June, Tunisia hosted the third meeting of the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of governments committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms (as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) in the digital realm.
Leading up to the conference, the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI)—which under the Ben Ali regime was the home of the country’s Internet censorship and surveillance apparatus—opened its doors to the public as #404Lab, an innovation and hackerspace. As Jillian York wrote at PBS MediaShift:
The ATI, once Tunisia’s censorship and surveillance apparatus, has aimed to become the country’s neutral Internet exchange point (IXP), pushing back against numerous attempts over the past couple of years to force it to censor. The ATI’s commitment to openness was made concrete in the run-up to the conference when its doors were opened to hackers to create the #404Lab, a space for innovation. Those present were invited to investigate the 2007-era censorship equipment left over from the Ben Ali regime.
The conference occurred shortly after the revelation that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting widespread surveillance through platforms such as Facebook and Google, making surveillance a hot topic of discussion. From a side event (video) held at Tunisian media organization Nawaat.org emerged a statement presented in the final plenary of the conference. The statement urges Freedom Online Coalition governments to adopt the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance:
The explosion of digital communications content and information about communications, or “communications metadata,” the falling cost of storing and mining large sets of data, and the provision of personal content through third party service providers make State surveillance possible at an unprecedented scale. Broad collection of such information not only has a chilling effect on free expression and association; it threatens confidence in the internet as a safe platform for personal communications. It is therefore incumbent upon FOC members to extend and defend fundamental rights in ways that respond to this changing environment.
Although the Freedom Online Coalition meeting gave a boost to Tunisia’s burgeoning image as a leader in protecting free expression online, the country still has a long way to go. Just weeks before the conference, blogger Hakim Ghanmi faced trial for comments he made criticizing the management of a military hospital in the southeastern city of Sfax. And just two days before the conference kicked off, rapper Weld15 was sentenced to two years in prison for a song in which he insulted police. After a formidable international campaign for his freedom, the rapper was released on July 3 and given a suspended sentence of six months in lieu of imprisonment. Article 19 issued a report in July on restrictions to online freedom in Tunisia.
Telecomix released findings that 34 Blue Coat servers “dedicated to intercepting communications and data circulating on the Internet” were operational in Syria as of May 22. This is not the first time that servers from the US-based surveillance technology firm have been found in the embattled country: In 2011, Citizen Lab detected the use of Blue Coat devices in Syria. Shortly thereafter, intermediary sales company Computerlinks was fined for selling devices to Syria, a violation of US sanctions. Reporters Without Borders has named Blue Coat a corporate “enemy of the Internet,” calling on the company to “explain the presence of 34 of its servers in Syria and their use by the regime to track down its opponents.”
In late May, activists around the world celebrated Bassel Safadi Khartabil’s birthday, the second the Syrian software engineer and open-source enthusiast has spent behind bars. In honor of Bassel’s birthday, Index on Censorship asked his friends to submit birthday messages, which they posted on their blog.
In Lebanon, a popular campaign to ‘take back parliament’ has been organized largely online. The campaigners describe themselves thus:
We are tired of the polarization of March 8/14 and the total disconnect and inefficiency of the Lebanese Parliament from our daily lives. We are tired of sectarianism and its paralyzing effect on social justice demands. We are young and we want to change this country. Odds are, we’re just like you.
The campaign crowdsourced their platform, and used Facebook to mobilize participation.
Frustrated by the statistic that nearly 70% of mobile phones are smuggled into the country, Lebanese officials have instituted a regulation that only phones with International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers registered at the customs office would be able to access local networks.
In early June, Telecommunication Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui began an online campaign to #FreeTheBandwidth. The campaign is directed at Abdel Minem Youssef, an executive at local telco Ogero (majority owned by the government) who has held positions at both Ogero and the Ministry of Telecommunication. In a press statement, Minister Sehnaoui accused Youssef of limiting the development of Internet infrastructure in the country. Minister Sehnaoui provided numbers to prove that the Lebanese government is losing $750,000 each month due to decisions made by Youseff.
The campaign stirred up the Lebanese online sphere for a week, but has yet to lead to any tangible outcome.
In early May, Google took a step toward recognizing Palestine as a state, changing “Palestinian Territories” to “Palestine” across its many platforms. The decision angered Israeli officials, who stated that the company’s action “pushes peace further away.” Google, however, has stuck with its initial decision.
The Internet Society (ISOC) in Palestine has been working to establish the Palestine Internet Exchange Point (PIX), hosted at Birzeit University. Right now, seven out of Palestine’s 11 ISPs have connected as peers, while the Palestinian National Research and Education Network (NREN) will connect universities to the service. The project recently received equipment from Google to host a copy of their global cache, increasing access speeds to Google services.
In late May, nearly a month before the June 30 protests that resulted in the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, Europe’s Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes met with Egypt’s Telecommunications Minister Atef Helmy to discuss Internet governance. Soon thereafter, they issued a joint statement calling for “openness, inclusiveness, accountability, effectiveness, coherence and respect for applicable laws.” The statement read:
We agreed that it is of the utmost importance to ensure that the Internet remains an open platform, that all attempts to fragment it into national “Intranets” are resisted and that all discussions and decisions concerning the “rules of the game” are based on a multi-stakeholder approach ensuring openness, inclusiveness, accountability, effectiveness, coherence and respect for applicable laws.
In this context, we agreed that in order to ensure broader participation and diversity in these debates, it is necessary to find “smart” ways to develop capacity and expertise on these complex issues, especially among less-resources stakeholders…
The Egyptian Blog for Human Rights recently published a report on ICT indicators in Egypt. The report includes data on the intersections of Internet usage and education, age, and gender.
The Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has released a legal guide to digital security for Arab human rights activists. The guide emphasizes legal aspects of digital security and offers suggestions on using tools for digital safety.
As in Jordan, leaked information about the NSA’s ‘Boundless Informant’ program shows that Egypt is among the top countries under surveillance by the US agency, with 7.6 billion reports on the country allegedly generated by the program. The Wall Street Journal reported that Egyptians were said to not be surprised by the program, just “disappointed.”
Coinciding with the June 30 protests was the launch of Mada Masr, a new online publication. According to the site's creators, Mada Masr aims to focus on investigative and data-based reporting. On July 4, the site published a scathing piece by Sherif Elsayed-Ali about the NSA’s global surveillance efforts. In it, Elsayed-Ali writes:
Internet access is integral to human rights because of its importance to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, education, and other widely recognized human rights. It is now clear that internet access, free from unlawful interference, must be protected as a legally enforceable right if our privacy is to mean anything in the 21st century.
We need a dedicated legal instrument that codifies our digital rights and clarifies the obligations of governments and responsibilities of service providers in relation to internet access. This is too important to be left to the whims of unaccountable agencies and repressive regimes.
Following the ouster of Morsi, the army shut down several Islamist media outlets, prompting a statement signed by seven human rights organizations, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre. The organizations state that Egyptian authorities “must respect principles of media freedom as stipulated by international law.”
Qatar, which has generally been the most open of the Gulf States in terms of online speech, has proposed a new cybercrime law that would—among other things—punish anyone who:
…infringes on the social principles or values or otherwise publishes news, photos, audio or visual recordings related to the sanctity of the private and familial life of persons, even if they were true, or infringes on others by libel or slander via the Internet or other information technology means.
Jan Keulen of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom stated that the law “raises questions over why a cybercrime law is now dealing with issues which were initially intended to be covered by the draft media law” and that online freedom of expression should be protected.
So far, 2013 has seen dozens of arrests relating to online speech in the Gulf nation of Kuwait, including the one-month imprisonment of the editor of online publication al-Aaan; the imprisonment and deportation of Egyptian blogger Abdullah Aziz al-Baz; and the two-year prison sentence of an online activist for remarks made on Twitter. The apparent crackdown has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and other organizations.
Most recently, 37-year-old teacher Huda al-Ajmi was handed an 11-year prison sentence for remarks made on Twitter deemed “insulting to the emir and calling for the overthrow of the regime.” It is the longest known sentence ever to have been issued for online dissent in Kuwait. Notably, Kuwait is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1996. The ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression, including peaceful criticism of public officials.
In early May, digital rights advocates rejoiced as Ali Abdulemam—a Bahraini blogger sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in 2011—came out of hiding, making his first public appearance at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
Global Voices Advocacy conducted an interview with Abdulemam in which the blogger stated that in Bahrain:
The situation is not developing…attacks on peaceful demonstrations continue. There is no moving forward for reforming, or giving the people their universal rights, there [are] no individual rights, there is no freedom of speech, there is no free press. So the situation is just like a state living 200 years back.
In June, it was reported that Bahraini authorities had expressed intent to restrict the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype and Viber. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights expressed concern over the move, stating that “these restrictions will contribute [to] restricting digital rights in Bahrain and will increase the control of Internet users.”
High school student Ali Al Shofa was sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly tweeting insulting comments about Sheikh Hamad Al-Khalifa on the news account @alkawarahnews, which the young man denied. The month prior, six Twitter users were charged with “misusing the right of free expression” and sentenced to a year in prison.
In early June, popular messaging and VoIP client Viber was blocked in Saudi Arabia following threats from the government to block such clients if they refused to follow “rules and regulatory conditions” (which, according to Wired, is “commonly taken to mean access for the security services to monitor calls and texts”).
In May, security researcher Moxie Marlinspike reported being contacted by Saudi telecom Mobily and asked for help with a surveillance project being undertaken in the country. Marlinspike refused the offer and published the email exchange on his website.
On June 24, seven citizens were convicted of “inciting protests” and “harming public order” on Facebook and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 10 years. The men were held in pre-trial detention for a year and a half at the General Investigations Prison in Damman.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates has also gone after Twitter users recently, sentencing Abdullah al Haddidi to ten months in prison for “spreading false news” about an ongoing trial of activists. Al Haddidi was charged with violating Article 265 of the Penal Code, which essentially criminalizes the dissemination of false news, with police and courts determining what communication is “truthful.”
In another case, Salah Yafie, a Bahraini national, was allegedly detained at Dubai International Airport for a “controversial” tweet. Little has been reported about Yafie, but a recent article from Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News reports that human rights groups in the country are urging Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry to secure Yafie’s release.
Iran, which according to reports has been plotting to cut itself off from the world’s Internet, has allegedly offered its services to Iraq for the same purpose. Earlier this year, Iraq revoked the controversial proposed Cyber Crime Law, showing initiative to protect certain fundamental rights online.
The Iraq Network for Social Media, which was instrumental in campaigning to revoke the Cyber Crime Law, organized the first Iraqi blogger conference last year.
According to Zawya, Oman ranks second highest amongst GCC countries in terms of smart phone usage. The same report found a 2000 percent increase in Internet usage in the region.
Morocco will soon be launching 4G services. According to recent reports, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (ANRT) will invite bids for 4G licenses by year's end. Morocco's Internet penetration is just shy of 50%.
E-Joussour, Morocco's first online community radio project launched in June. The project will reportedly function as an advocacy tool for free expression and will offer broadcasts in Amazigh, Arabic, and French.
In Mauritania, where only an estimated 3 percent of the population has access to the Internet, a hacking community has emerged. A recent report from Lebanon’s Daily Star profiled hacker Mauritania Attacker, who “[targets] websites worldwide in the name of Islam.”
Deutsche Welle’s Best of Blogs competition has yielded a winner this year from Mauritania. Ahmed Ould Jedou, a Global Voices contributor, won this year’s award for Best Arabic Blog. In a recent interview, Jedou stated that: “Blogging for me is a space for electronic resistance and for the spread of a culture of human rights. It is the victory of humanity and stands in the face of tyranny…”
Recent research found that devices made by Blue Coat have been found in Sudan, possibly in violation of US sanctions. The devices, which can be used for monitoring network traffic, have also been found in Iran, Syria, and other countries.
Popular blogger Amir Ahmad Nasr (formerly known by the pseudonym ‘Sudanese Thinker’) released his first book, entitled My Islam: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind—and Doubt Freed My Soul. Nasr was the subject of a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.
A report by Good Governance Africa details Internet censorship and social activism in Algeria which—although its Internet penetration rate is nearly 15 percent—is rarely reported on by digital rights advocates.
Yemen recently launched a satellite Internet service that will provide access to previously unconnected villages in the country. The country’s Internet penetration currently sits at roughly 14.9 percent.
- A recent study conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar found that support for online free expression in the Middle East and North Africa is widespread. An analysis of the report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) tackles some of the apparent contradictions in the Northwestern report’s findings.
- A new report from Hivos entitled “Internet Governance: The quest for an open Internet in the Middle East and North Africa” [PDF] looks at the state of Internet governance in six countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia.
- A new UNESCO report looks at how ICTs are being used in education across five Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Palestine (West Bank only) and Qatar.
- The 4th edition of the Arab Social Media Forum was held in Ramallah, Palestine on June 8, 2013.
- The second Arab Internet Governance Forum (Arab IGF) will be held this autumn in Algiers.
Digital Citizen is brought to you by Global Voices Advocacy, Access, EFF, and Social Media Exchange. This month’s report was researched, edited, and written by Reem Al Masri, Hisham Almiraat, Nadim Kobeissi, Katherine Maher, Mohamad Najem, Mohammed Tarakiyee, and Jillian York with editorial support from Ellery Roberts Biddle.