8-bit: Internet Censorship in the Arab Region

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Masaar “Community for Technology and Law” and Smex “Social Media Exchange”, held a webinar on Wednesday, 10 June, on “Internet Censorship in the Arab Region”, which is the second of a series of discussions entitled “8-bit” that Masaar started with a discussion on “Tools and Applications of Digital Security in Remote Work”.

In the webinar, speakers discussed Arab governments’ dealing with the spread of the novel coronavirus and its impact on Internet users, the laws restricting freedom of expression on the web and legal texts used to impose Internet censorship and also websites blocking.

Speakers from five Arab countries participated in the session:

  • Reem Al Masri, Jordan: Head of Research at “7iber” website and one of its founders.
  • Marwa Fatafta, Tunisia: MENA Policy Manager at “Access Now”.
  • Mona Shtaya, Palestine: Advisory Board Member at Arab Center for Social Media Advancement – “7amleh”.
  • Mohamad Najem, Lebanon: Executive Director at “SMEX – Social Media Exchange”.
  • Mohammad El-Taher, Egypt: “Masaar – Community for Technology and Law”

Egypt

The Egyptian authorities began blocking websites in May 2017, and this practice continued until the number of blocked websites in Egypt exceeded 600 websites. In 2018, several laws were issued to give the authority of blocking to more than one party. The Anti-Cybercrime Law gives authorizes the the police and the public prosecution to block websites, and the Press and Media Regulatory Law gives the Supreme Council for Media Regulation the power to block media websites and personal accounts that have more than 5,000 followers .

Mohammad El-Taher mentioned other forms of Internet censorship by the security and judicial bodies, who prosecute activists and Internet users, and more lately, prosecuting users of entertainment applications such as “Tik Tok” and “Likee”.

The Egyptian Public Prosecution authority charges users of these applications with violating the Egyptian family values, in accordance with the Penal Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law. These charges are related to a system of societal values, such as crimes of indecent behavior, which creates different forms of censorship such as self-censorship by applications users, and community censorship on the published content.

Jordan

Blocking websites in Jordan takes two forms, the first type is in accordance with the Press and Publications Law and targets press websites that did not meet the conditions stipulated in the law, which were passed in 2013, while the second form of blocking has no legal basis or interpretation, and sometimes it targets services such as the live broadcast service.

Some activists are targeted for expressing their opinion online or posting anti-state opinions on social media, using the Cybercrime Law, which allows detention without trial and that imposes a state of self-censorship among users for fear of arrest. Reem Al Masri also mentioned that various sectors take actions against workers for publishing criticisms on their personal accounts.

Palestine

The Palestinian authorities block websites belong to opposition groups and independent websites, in accordance with the Cybercrime Law, which was approved by the authority in 2016. In addition, activists who blog about violations of the Israeli occupation government are prosecuted, and sometimes they are charged with sharing false news.

The Cybercrime Law contains loose terms such as public security and public morals, and this results in a state of self-censorship in which people retract from sharing their political opinions for fear of surveillance and being subjected to security prosecutions. One of the loose terms, Mona Shtaya said, is the charge of “misuse of technology”, which has no clear definition.

Tunisia

The Tunisian authorities prosecute bloggers and activists for expressing their opinions on the Internet, especially in the case of criticizing the government, and there are some laws that are used to suppress freedom of expression, such as criminalizing accusing a government official without evidence, and if someone published some incidents of corruption, they might be prosecuted if they couldn’t prove veracity of the facts.

Marwa Fatafta also spoke about contact-tracing applications that some countries began to use to track Covid-19 cases, Fatafta mentioned that there is no transparency regarding the data collected through the applications and for how long will this informations be stored before it is erased, and which bodies in the state have access to these data.

Lebanon

Blocking began in Lebanon in 2011, but there is no clear standard for blocking websites, as it is done solely on some mobile networks 3/4G, and also the “Grindr” application has been blocked, and some websites and applications related to the currency exchange rate have also been blocked.

Since the October 17 uprising, the number of summonses has increased, and people are punished using the Penal Law if they criticize the government or accuse some officials of corruption.