Internet Censorship in Time of Social Distancing

[Link to the page on GitHub]

Authorities should review its decisions of blocking hundreds of websites enabling digital communication services for individuals

On April 9, 2020, the Egyptian authorities blocked the Socialist Popular Alliance Party website “Daaarb”, while on the same day “Mada” team announced that their website was blocked for the 22nd time. Meanwhile, users of the “Al Manassa” news website had difficulties accessing the website’s links during the past few days. The technical measurements collected by “Masaar” show that the links of the “Al Manassa”, which the website uses to bypass blocking imposed on it since May 2017, were blocked again on a number of telecommunications networks operating in Egypt.

Despite the challenges posed by the increasing number of infected people and deaths resulting from the novel coronavirus, which require respect for individuals right to access information and enabling digital press more than ever, authorities impose significant restrictions on the freedom to use the Internet and the right to communicate. Authorities are still blocking at least 572 websites since May 2017 in addition to 31 alternate domains that have been used by blocked websites instead of blocked links, increasing the total number of blocked websites to reach 600 domains *. This is including digital media platforms, human rights initiatives and civil society organizations. The authorities have not stopped blocking news websites in spite of the priorities imposed by the current circumstance which should stress the necessity of enabling state’s capabilities and resources to protect the health and lives of Egyptians rather than insisting on blocking them out of information and opinions of various sources.

The continued blocking of these websites exacerbates the effects of individuals’ inability to move and communicate freely as a result of partial curfews and the closure of some government departments and private sector companies. These measures taken by the authorities to reduce the spread of infection, inherently limit the ability of individuals to access information. Access to the digital platforms of newspapers and civil society organizations becomes more important than ever, so as to enable individuals to information and opinions published by these agencies on the one hand, and to monitor the performance of the Authority and its policies while facing this epidemic on the other hand.

Access to the digital platforms becomes more important than ever, so as to enable individuals to information and opinions and to monitor the performance of the Authority and its policies while facing this epidemic.

In addition, internet users in Egypt have been unable to access some voice communication services for widespread applications such as WhatsApp and Skype via mobile internet services (3g / 4g) years ago. This increases the severity of the consequences of instructions issued to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of infection. Restrictions imposed on direct communication between individuals inside Egypt, and the inability of individuals to travel between countries, make these applications an easy and affordable alternative for large sectors of users, in terms of cost and reassurance, enabling them to communicate with their loved ones. These applications also help individuals who have to work or study remotely, since they are unable to be in their workplaces or studies that have been closed as a means of precaution. In this context, “Masaar” calls on the Egyptian authorities to immediately unblock these websites and applications to enable individuals to access information and communicate with each other without restrictions.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had called on the Egyptian government last week to empower civil society organizations and the press, and to involve them in the efforts tackling the epidemic, rather than imposing restrictions on social media users and critical voices in light of these exceptional circumstances facing society. International experts in the areas of freedom of expression and media, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, also called on states to respect and promote the right of individuals to access information while facing the pandemic, to empower individuals with acceptable quality Internet services, and to refrain from unnecessary and inappropriate restrictions on internet usage in general and on digital press in particular.

After the increasing number of people infected with the novel coronavirus, the Egyptian authorities have taken extensive measures to limit the spread of the virus, including a temporary curfew for a specified number of hours, the complete and temporary closure of some government departments and the reduction in the number of workers in other entities. Some private sector companies and other non-governmental sectors have followed similar measures. The Egyptian authorities have also allowed, on an exceptional basis, journalists to move during the curfew time to ensure doing their job. The commitment of the Egyptian authorities to guarantee free access to information from various sources does not contradict the nature of the emergency conditions Egypt and the world are going through. The right to acquire knowledge from various sources, as well as being a fundamental right and freedom, is quite involved in the context of the fight against the novel coronavirus, as a right to life. Individuals cannot survive, avoid behaviors harmful to their health, and cooperate with the state and societal initiatives aimed at minimizing the effects of the epidemic without empowering them with “shared” information relevant to the political, economic and scientific aspects associated with its spread.

teleCommunications Sector and the novel coronavirus

While facing the effects of the novel coronavirus, efforts related to supporting the telecommunications sector and direct services to users were limited to encouraging electronic transactions and remote work and adding 20% monthly download capacities for home Internet subscriptions for individuals for free, at a cost of 200 million Egyptian pounds paid by the state, and incentive offers on Internet services. However, some users found that these offers are only valid for 24 hours, contrary to the propaganda promoted by some telecom companies that users can take advantage of these offers for a month.

The technical tests conducted by “Masaar” revealed that “WE” network has blocked porn websites for users of this network during the curfew time, from 7 pm until 6 am, and unblock them after the daily curfew. While the same tests found that other networks did not block porn websites. WE’s resort to this measure is likely to reduce the pressure on the network while citizens are at home during the curfew time.

Our Technical Tests Documenting Websites Blocking Practices

“Masaar” conducted the following technical tests to verify and document the information related to the above-mentioned blocking of websites:

Blocking “Daaarb” Website

Socialist Popular Alliance Party launched “Daaarb” website, headed by the editor-in-chief Khaled Al-Balshi on March 8, 2020. Shortly on April 9, 2020, many Facebook users informed their inability to access the website (daaarb.com). 

“Daaarb” website is the third website that is blocked for its editor-in-chief, journalist Khaled Al-Balashi

“Daaarb” website is the third website that is blocked for its editor-in-chief, journalist Khaled Al-Balashi, where two websites headed by him were previously blocked; “Al-Bidaya” website in June 2017, and “Kateb” website which was blocked only 9 hours after its launch in June 2018. It is worth noting that “Kateb” was one of the initiatives of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information which website was blocked in August 2017.

“Masaar” collected some tests around the website and reached the following results:

  • Daaarb uses the link: https://daaarb.com as the primary domain

  • The domain of “Daaarb” refers to IP: 213.108.104.107

  • The website is blocked on “Vodafone” network (AS36935), “WE” network (AS8452), “Etisalat” network (AS36992), Orange network (AS37069)

  • Blocking on the “WE” network (AS8452) and “Etisalat” network (AS36992) uses the blocking format based on blocking Internet Protocol Packet (TCP / IP). This means that any domain that shares “Daaarb” website with the same IP address will also be subject to blocking.

  • This means that: Each domain (a site name, for example “masaar.net” indicates a specific IP address) and the same IP address can be used by a large number of domains, thus in the case of blocking a particular website with a format of blocking based on blocking Internet Protocol Packet TCP / IP, all other domains that share the IP address will also be blocked.

  • Using the Crips tool and Viewdns.info to create a Reverse IP Lookup, it was found that “Daaarb” IP was used by more than 1,100 other domains. These domains are also likely to be blocked on the “WE” network (AS8452) and on “Etisalat” network (AS36992).

  • “Daaarb” website was tested through OONI Probe software for mobile phones, and the results were verified by other tools related to testing the ability to connect to websites in Egypt such as Curl, in addition to trying to access the website from multiple geographical locations outside Egypt.

The continuous Blocking of “Al Manassa”

In May 2017, “Al Manassa” announced that its website was blocked; it has used alternative domains in order to bypass blocking and reach the public. During the past few days, users have had difficulty accessing the website, and the measurements collected by “Masaar” show that the links vvw.almanassa.net and vvv.almanassa.net are blocked on the “WE” network (AS8452), “Etisalat” network (AS36992), and Orange network (AS24863) formerly known as LINK.NET.

In a statement by “Al-Manassa”, it announced that: “By trying accessing the website via a VPN, it worked normally, which we consider an additional context for blocking … We requested an additional opinion from a specialist in blocking techniques, and he confirmed the blocking, explaining that the last blocking method is different from its precedents. “

Blocking Mada for the 22nd time

“Mada” is one of the news websites that were blocked in May 2017. The website’s operators have used various tactics to enable its readers to bypass the blocking, such as using the Accelerated Mobile Page service. As a result, in February 2018, the Egyptian authorities blocked the ampproject.org website that provides this service, then “Mada” website used the Google Cloud Platform service to provide alternative unblocked domains and links (appspot.com), however, the Egyptian authorities have blocked all of them.

On April 9, 2020, “Mada” website published on its Facebook page that the malfunctioning blocking links provided by “Mada” were broken, bringing the number of domains that the Egyptian authorities blocked for “Mada” to 22.

22 domains of have been blocked

Blocking Porn Websites during Curfew

During the past few days, “Masaar” has collected a set of measurements that are likely to block pornographic websites for “WE” users, as follows:

  • A sample was taken from 24 websites that offer pornographic content from the most popular websites

  • The sample was tested using OONI Probe software for mobile phones, and the results were checked by other tools related to testing the connectivity to websites in Egypt such as Curl in addition to trying to access the websites from multiple geographical locations outside Egypt.

Tests confirmed blocking porn sites on the WE network only during the curfew times

  • Porn websites were found to be blocked on the “WE” network (AS8452), while Vodafone Network (AS36935) and Orange Network (AS37069) do not block porn websites.

  • The sample was tested several times during several days, during curfew times (from seven in the evening until six in the morning) and normal times (from six in the morning until seven in the evening)

  • The tests confirmed the blocking of sample websites on the “WE” network (AS8452) only during the night-time curfew while it operates normally during the day.

Recommendations

Egyptian society faces restrictions imposed on various digital spaces in light of political and legislative contexts that undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms. The country has been living in a declared emergency since April 2017, renewed every three months. Likewise, the constitutional text guaranteeing the right to access government information and data was not accompanied by a law that would activate this guarantee, regulate the relationship between individuals and government agencies, or compel the authorities to proactively publish all necessary information. The law on the circulation of information proposed by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation is still locked in the drawers in the Cabinet, despite the completion of the draft project since the end of 2017. This is in addition to the financial and bureaucratic obstacles imposed by the authorities on the creation and ownership of digital media, and the continuous development of legislative frameworks that include possible sanctions for social media users, as well as prosecuting Internet users on charges of spreading false news.

These recommendations do not contradict with the Egyptian authorities taking serious measures in the field of periodically publishing information and data related to the daily rate of infections and deaths. However, in order to enhance the efforts of the state and society in this direction, “Masaar” recommends the following steps be taken:

  • Unblock of websites and applications, and enabling the various media platforms to play all of their roles without threatening to prosecute them, in order to raise the level of confidence in the performance of the government during the current crisis.

  • Follow the highest levels of information disclosure related to the epidemic, in a manner that does not contradict with maintaining the privacy of patients and the data related to them, provided that the declared information is provided with the appropriate elements and continuous public publishing.

  • Ceasing restrictions on the use of various telecommunications services, including abandoning Internet censorship practices and blocking voice services on mobile networks.
  • Supporting telecommunication infrastructure, ensuring that users have access to various communication services, conveniently and in accordance with the new requirements imposed by the conditions of curfew, social distancing, and remote work and study.

* (Masaar) monitored 547 sites on monitoring provided by Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression until February 2020, and (Maasar) monitored 25 sites and alternative domains.