Lebanon: SMEX Tracks Web Filtering Through Research, Crowdsourcing

Casino du Liban. Photo by HAL_ via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Casino du Liban. Photo by HAL_ via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The original version of this post appeared on SMEX.

As co-director of Social Media Exchange, a small non-profit that promotes the strategic use of new media for civic participation and advocacy in the Arab World, I have spent much of this year researching blocked websites in Lebanon. This past summer, I was able to obtain web blocking data from a Lebanese Internet service provider.

Of various sites blocked, cases that stood out included one site that played a key role in uncovering child molestation allegations against a Lebanese priest, a series of unauthorized gambling sites, and Israel-based sites related to commerce.

In October 2013, Lebanese Priest Mansour Labaki was convicted by the Vatican of child molestation. He was sentenced to a “life of penitence,” a decision that triggered outrage from his family and supporters who insisted that he was innocent and requested an appeal. In contrast, others in the civil society wanted his case to be transferred to a civil court where he would be condemned and sent to jail for his actions.

In the midst of the drama, the website that exposed the priest and documented stories of the victims was blocked inside Lebanon.

The Priest Labaki scandal website was blocked under Lebanon's libel and defamation law, despite the fact that he was convicted of the crime by the Vatican. The decision to block the site exemplifies the power that some religious institutions wield over Lebanon's judicial system.

Nine gambling sites were blocked in Lebanon in 2013. Casino Du Liban, established first in the Middle East in 1959, has had a legal monopoly over this industry in Lebanon since 1995. @Sygma refreshed our memories in last summer's debate [ar] about its status: “Decree 6919 of June 29 1995, Casino du Liban was given monopoly over all gambling activities to protect public morals.” Therefore blocking the nine gambling websites is justified, from a legal perspective, despite the fact that it is easy to bypass filtering.

Lebanon is also blocking six Israeli websites under the economy and trade law. The Ministry of Economy and Commerce administrates the Arab League boycott on Israel and thus is responsible for restricting a range of economic and trade relations between Lebanon and Israel. Concurrently, Israeli authorities are also blocking Lebanese IPs from accessing two websites, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and TASE, a website that provides employment information.

While we can debate the legality of blocking specific websites, we cannot support the lack of information and transparency surrounding the process. A state needs more than legal support to function and survive: It needs community input and support to remind them that some laws — such as the libel and defamation laws — are in need of new amendments, and that unblocking gambling sites can create economic opportunity. Most importantly, we need to have all this in place to call on our politicians and public officials to account for their actions.

The technical methodology through which we obtained these results will not be published here, but we hope to make it available in the future. In recent days, we've begun receiving messages leading us to believe that web blocking in Lebanon is applied inconsistently across ISPs. To try to gather more information about this interesting phenomenon, we’ve made our Google spreadsheet public and added columns for ISPs. Through crowdsourcing, we can try to map what’s actually going on in the country with regard to blocking of websites. Please test the URLs and add your results, or if you find other blocked URLs, add them too. The following Maharat Foundation article [ar] also offers useful information about the blocking.

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