In a brief statement posted on its official website, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) announced that streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney have to be obligated to “the customs and values of the Egyptian state.” The statement raised a number of questions about the possibility and mechanism of subjecting some streaming platforms such as Netflix and Disney to the rules and procedures imposed by Egyptian laws. In addition to the difference between foreign streaming platforms and Egyptian platforms regarding the procedures for complying with Egyptian laws and possible penalties in case of violation of these rules.
The statement of the SCMR follows the issuance of a joint statement, between the General Authority for Audio-Visual Media and the Committee of Electronic Media Officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council States, regarding the directive to Netflix to remove the violative content. The statement stated that “Recently, it was noticed that Netflix broadcasts some visual materials and content that violate the controls of media content in the countries of the Cooperation Council, and which contradicts with Islamic and societal values and principles.” The statement indicated that “the platform has been contacted to remove this content, including those intended for children”, and that the concerned authorities will follow up on the platform’s compliance with the directives, and in the event that the infringing content continues to be broadcasted, “the necessary legal measures will be taken.”
In contrast to the statement of the SCMR, which did not specify the reason for publishing the statement, the statement of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries was clearer about the motives related to issuing an official position. The same applies to the efforts related to coordinating with the relevant platforms and anticipating the resulting partial or complete blocking of Netflix’s content in the event of non-compliance with what was agreed upon with the GCC countries.
As for the statement of the SCMR, its inadequate expression made it difficult to understand the purpose of its publication. Therefore, a quick reading of the legal landscape may help in understanding some of the procedural details that the SCMR mentioned in the statement.
At the outset, it is needed to return to the stage of issuing the Press and Media Regulating Law, No. 180 of 2018, which granted the Supreme Council for Media Regulation broad powers in the approval process for the issuance of licenses and permits necessary for the operation of media platforms. In addition to the methods of censoring the content published on these platforms, and obligating the platforms to have multiple work rules and codes of conduct.
Following the issuance of the Press and Media Regulating Law and its Executive Regulation, the SCMR issued, in May of 2020, a licensing regulation that regulates the dates and procedures for applying for licenses needed to practice media and press activities. This includes every website operating in Egypt, as well as the websites of commercial companies, associations, clubs, and parties. After more than six months from the date of issuance of the licensing regulation, the SCMR introduced amendments to the licensing regulation. The amendments obliged streaming platforms to obtain the approval of the SCMR to carry out their activities.
Issuing rules for the work of streaming platforms
The licensing regulation mainly addresses a number of entities that operate in the fields of journalism and media exclusively. These entities include news websites, press websites, cable distribution companies, and encrypted satellite and digital platforms. Subsequently, the SCMR amended the regulation and added to those entities what is known as “Social Information Technology Companies“.
The licensing regulation defines social information technology companies as “Companies that operate platforms or websites that provide or host news or media services or that broadcast or display artwork for profit purposes and that allow users to trade or share any news or media content with other users or allow such content to be traded or shared among the public on the same platform or website.”
The licensing regulations obligate these companies to obtain what is known as a “certificate of accreditation”, which is a certificate issued by the SCMR stating that all necessary technical, legal, and regulatory requirements are met, according to which activity within Egypt is permitted.
The amendments, included in the licensing regulations regarding the procedures and conditions for obtaining the accreditation certificate, added the following:
- Submitting an approval application on the form prepared for this at the General Secretariat, signed by the legal representative or his/her authorized representative, provided that the application includes the name, surname, and nationality of the owner, the name of the platform, or website, the legal situation, and the registered trademark.
- A certified copy of the company’s founding contract, commercial register, and trademark registration certificate, if the company has its headquarters in Egypt. Otherwise, an approval to engage in activity abroad shall be submitted in accordance with the provisions of the laws in force in those countries, provided that the submitted information is certified by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The licensing regulation clarifies that the application for obtaining an accreditation certificate is examined by the General Secretariat of the SCMR, which sends the application to the competent committee to prepare a report with its opinion on the application after examining it and taking the opinion of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, before submitting the report to the SCMR for decision, after obtaining the approval of the “concerned agencies”, without clearly specifying the nature and role of these agencies. The SCMR issues its decision on the request with the consent of the majority of its members present, within thirty days from the date of its receipt, provided that the request meets all statements and documents. The licensing regulation also obligates the necessity of notifying the SCMR of any amendment to the data included in the accreditation request, within thirty days from the date of amending these data, so that the SCMR can prove the amendment with the accreditation request.
The licensing regulation also states that the accreditation period is five years, and may be renewed upon a request submitted to the SCMR six months before its expiry. In the event that the data for the accreditation application were not complete, the SCMR must notify the applicant to complete them within fifteen days from the date of submitting the report to the competent committee.
The licensing regulation did not clarify the fees needed to obtain the accreditation certificate, nor did the page for presenting the license and permits forms on the SCMR website contain any forms related to the accreditation of social information technology companies.
The role of the SCMR in the censorship of the content of streaming platforms
The amendments to the licensing regulation put some controls over the censorship of content broadcasted on streaming platforms such as Disney and Netflix. Among those controls is that the request for a certificate of approval is considered as agreeing to accept the removal of harmful content. The licensing regulation specifies the cases in which the content can be considered harmful, which are exclusively mentioned in Article 64 of the licensing regulation as follows:
- Content that is hateful, offensive, intimidating, or disrespectful to users.
- Content that offends individuals or state institutions and threatens peace and social security.
- Content that includes discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, descent, origin, or nationality.
- Content that incites racism or private or public violence.
- Content that includes incitement to commit acts that violate human rights and violate human dignity.
- Content that includes what constitutes criminal offenses in accordance with the laws in force in Egypt.
- Content that infringes copyright, intellectual property, or trademarks.
- Content that contains false information or personal or public rumors.
- Content that incites and encourages the commission of crimes.
- Content directed to children that do not take into account their age classification.
The regulation stresses the need for a mechanism to ensure the response of social information technology companies, that have obtained the accreditation certificate, respond to remove harmful content within 24 hours of the company’s notification of the complaint made, or immediate removal if the SCMR proves the existence of a violation by examining one of the legally competent authorities. The company must keep the violating content for a period of four months as evidence of the violation if the decision is to delete or remove it.
The licensing regulation gives the SCMR the discretionary power to take appropriate measures according to its discretion regarding non-compliance with the implementation of deletion or removal. Although the licensing regulation does not expressly indicate the actions that can be taken by the Board, it does, however, imply implicitly, the possibility of withdrawing or revoking the accreditation certificate. It is also understood from the general context related to the powers of the SCMR stipulated in the Press and Media Regulation Law, the Licensing Regulations, and the Penalties Regulations, that the SCMR has the right to block harmful content whenever it deems fit.
The licensing regulation also indicates that the accreditation certificate includes some conditions that must be adhered to by companies that operate streaming platforms, including:
- Respect the principle of freedom of opinion and expression and help users innovate and be creative.
- Enable users to file complaints about harmful content and verify the credibility of these complaints in a manner that ensures integrity and transparency while documenting these complaints and notifying the complainants of the decision.
- Submit a semi-annual report to the SCMR in both Arabic and English on dealing with complaints related to harmful content.
- Combat illicit hate speech and guide users to the rules of correct behavior, increase their awareness and culture, and prohibit the promotion of all forms of violence, discrimination, racism, or hatred.
- Cooperate with the SCMR in the areas related to the activities of both parties, especially in the field of training.
- Protect copyrights, intellectual property, and trademarks.
- Submit reports, information, explanations, and clarifications requested by the SCMR.
- Adhere to the Content Removal Rules (already referred to).
The statement of the Supreme Media Council shows the Council’s ongoing endeavor to try to subject streaming platforms to Egyptian regulations. However, these attempts did not receive a response from the companies that provide streaming services. Although more than two years have passed since the issuance of the amendments to the licensing regulations, the SCMR has not announced the issuance of any accreditation certificates. The SCMR’s attempts come this time to take advantage of the position taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which can contribute to pressure on streaming platforms to comply with Egyptian laws.
The statement of the SCMR renews the concerns related to the Council’s expansion in censorship of content presented on streaming platforms according to vague rules that lack clear standards, such as that the SCMR considers content published on streaming platforms to be harmful, requiring its deletion in accordance with general standards that may be in the form of considering the content to be containing an insult to the state institutions or threatening peace and social security.