Social media influencers confront various legal risks and threats, risks that any user of social media platforms may encounter. However, these risks intensify for influencers due to the potential wide dissemination of the content they share on their accounts and the high number of followers. This allows authorities and different entities to monitor the published content and consequently enforce laws that may lead to the imprisonment of these influencers on occasion.
Legal risks expanded following the issuance of the Cybercrime Law, which carried penalties, both in terms of freedom and finances, that could be imposed without regulated legal constraints. The law included unspecified crimes through which any user could be prosecuted, such as the crime of using an account to commit an offense punishable by law, the crime of violating the values of the Egyptian family, and the crime of creating a fake website or account, among others.
The risks increased further with the Press and Media Regulation Law issued in 2018. The law included specific provisions that opened the door to direct responsibilities borne by influencers. These responsibilities appear more as an attempt at regulatory control over the content provided, and the penalties, if not restricting freedom, have the potential to disrupt the work of influencers.
This paper aims to identify the risks posed directly by the Press and Media Regulation Law on influencers. The paper also discusses the impacts related to the policies and regulations produced by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) on the work of influencers’ pages. Finally, the paper addresses the absence of any guarantees for influencers in the face of the multiple responsibilities imposed by the laws and regulations of the Press and Media Regulation Law.
The Nature of Influencers’s Work under the Media Regulation Law
The Press and Media Regulation Law encompasses the fundamental rules related to the operation of various media forms, whether visual, written, or auditory. Among these rules are regulations regarding the licensing of journalistic and media entities, the rights and guarantees of journalists, and the penalties applied in case of violations of the stipulated rules.
The law indicates that its objective is to establish regulatory rules for various media outlets only. This is affirmed by the second paragraph of Article 1 of the law, which excludes personal websites and accounts from the scope of its application.
The article stipulates the following:
“This law regulates the press, media, and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation. Its provisions apply to all entities, institutions, press, media, and websites. An exception is made for personal websites, means, and accounts unless otherwise specified by the law.“1“
Despite the clarity of the law’s general objective, the legislator exploited the space provided by the phrase “unless otherwise specified by the law.” Indeed, the Press and Media Regulation Law included an exceptional provision granting extensive powers to the SCMR – as the entity responsible for monitoring various media outlets.
Within the SCMR’s powers is the authority to impose blocking penalties on media and personal accounts and websites in cases where they publish or broadcast false news, incite violations of the law, advocate violence or hatred, discriminate against citizens, promote racism or bias, include attacks on individuals, or contain defamation or denigration of celestial religions or religious beliefs.2
The following section in the paper clarifies the individuals and entities exempted from the possibility of imposing blocking penalties on personal accounts and websites. The Press and Media Regulation Law establishes two criteria for differentiating between media outlets subject to full legal provisions and other websites and accounts subject to certain penalties, such as the exceptional penalty of blocking.
The definitions provided by the Press and Media Regulation Law did not include a clear definition for the concept of a personal account or website or a criterion for distinguishing between personal websites and other websites. The absence of definitions persisted until 2020 when the SCMR issued regulations on licensing. The regulations included several new definitions not mentioned in the law.3
Among them are the definitions of a personal website and a personal account:
- Personal Website: A website created by an individual on the World Wide Web (the Internet) to display their resume, interests, hobbies, or ideas.
- Personal Account: An electronic account on one of the websites created by an individual to display their resume, interests, hobbies, or ideas.4
However, these definitions in the licensing regulations did not succeed in clarifying the unique or distinctive nature of a personal website or account. Displaying personal interests or ideas through a personal account is expected, so the phrases used in the definition are not sufficient to differentiate between a personal account or website and other websites.
Furthermore, the provided definitions open the door to the possibility of regulating commercial websites that may advertise their products or services. Additionally, the regulations failed to provide a definition for websites and accounts subject to the provisions of the law and regulations.
Another criterion, or complementary criterion to the first one, is that the personal electronic account, website, or mean should have five thousand followers or more. Neither the law nor its executive regulations specify the purpose behind the number five thousand followers.
It can be understood from this criterion that the Press and Media Regulation Law follows the rules applied on social media platforms, especially Facebook. Facebook distinguishes between friends and followers, setting a limit of five thousand friends, while there is no limit on the number of followers. The law treats accounts or pages that exceed the maximum limit of friends as public pages with followers.
Based on the above, it can be said that the Press and Media Regulation Law was unable to provide a precise and direct definition for the category of influencers on social media. The criteria used by the law to differentiate between personal accounts and websites and other websites did not succeed in clarifying the reason for targeting these accounts and websites with enforceable penalties or the principles the law relied on to establish these criteria.
Since the issuance of the Press and Media Regulation Law and the regulations for licenses and penalties, there has been confusion regarding the authority of the SCMR in monitoring the activities of personal electronic accounts and websites, as well as the nature of the responsibilities placed on influencers concerning the management of their personal accounts and websites.
There are some important points that remain unclear as of the time of writing this paper, such as
- Pages/accounts that exceed five thousand followers.
- The mandatory requirement for these pages to obtain a work license from the SCMR.
- Violations that these accounts may commit.
- Penalties that the managers of these accounts may face.
- The scope of legal protection that “influencers” have in the face of possible penalties they may encounter.
The paper provides clarification on the legal responsibilities of these accounts from the perspective of the Press and Media Regulation Law and associated regulations and decisions. However, the paper does not address other laws that may impose penalties on users regardless of the nature of the user’s actions.
There is confusion regarding the legal responsibilities imposed on influencers who manage accounts or websites with more than five thousand followers. The confusion relates to the extent to which this category is obligated to adhere to the regulations for obtaining a license or permit from the SCMR to manage these accounts or websites, similar to media outlets and newspapers.
A primary reason for the confusion is that the licensing regulations mentioned personal websites and accounts within their definitions. However, the regulations omitted any clear responsibilities related to obligating influencers to obtain licenses for personal accounts and websites. The regulations also did not include guidelines or rules related to the conditions for applying for a license or any penalties for not obtaining one.
The second reason contributing to the lack of clarity for personal accounts and websites is related to the application forms prepared by the SCMR for obtaining a license to operate within Egypt. The forms, published in May 2020, included twenty-one forms for different entities that could apply for a license.
One of the forms was designated for applying for a license for an individual’s website (Form No. 10). Upon reviewing this form, it becomes clear that among the requirements and conditions related to licensing an individual’s website, the capital of the website should not be less than one hundred thousand Egyptian pounds. Additionally, a copy of the tax card, commercial registration, and trademark registration certificate should be attached.
It is understood from this that the recipients of this form are companies and individual entities, not natural persons. However, the lack of clarity in the wording used for the application or form led to confusion about obligating personal accounts and websites to obtain a license to operate within Egypt.
Therefore, it can be said that there is no obligation for personal accounts and websites with more than five thousand followers to obtain a license from the SCMR, and fundamentally, there are no rules governing the methods of applying for a license.
Various legislations regulating the work of media outlets include several potential sanctions that can be imposed in case of violations of the Press and Media Regulation Law or regulations and codes governing the work of media outlets. Although the law primarily aims to regulate the work of media outlets, and the imposition of sanctions on personal accounts and websites is exceptional and occurs in specific cases, the regulations and codes issued by the SCMR have addressed sanctions that can be imposed on personal accounts and websites with more than five thousand followers.
The Sanctions List issued by the SCMR has expanded the scope of sanctions mentioned in the Press and Media Regulation Law.5 Notably, in these sanctions, the legislator draws a significant parallel between media outlets operating through legal entities, which have administrative structures and editorial policies, staffed by professional journalists and media personnel, and personal websites, accounts, and blogs that essentially express the ideas of their owners according to the definition provided in the licensing regulations. This expansion, at times, extends to requiring personal websites and accounts to adhere to the journalistic and media code of ethics.
The Press and Media Regulation Law includes an exceptional provision in the second paragraph of Article 19 that allows the SCMR to suspend or block personal websites, blogs, or electronic accounts with more than five thousand followers. Article 19 of the law states:
“Newspapers, media outlets, or websites are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting false news or anything that incites or encourages violation of the law, violence, hatred, or involves discrimination between citizens or promotes racism or bias, or includes insults, defamation, or contempt for individuals or mockery of divine religions or religious beliefs. Every personal website, personal blog, or personal electronic account with five thousand followers or more is committed to the provisions of this article. Without prejudice to the legal liability resulting from violating the provisions of this article, the Supreme Council must take appropriate action against the violation, and it has the authority to suspend or block the mentioned website, blog, or account. Concerned parties can appeal the decision to the Administrative Judiciary Court.“
While this article seems influenced by the wording of Article 71 of the Egyptian Constitution, which imposes constitutional protection against censorship on the media and prohibits imposing freedom deprivation penalties in publishing cases, its content establishes broad control over media and personal websites and accounts.
Article 71 of the Egyptian Constitution states:
“In no way shall the imposition of censorship on Egyptian newspapers and media sources, their confiscation, cessation, or closure be allowed. Limited censorship may be excepted during times of war or public mobilization. No penalty restricting freedom shall be imposed for crimes committed through publication or publicity. As for crimes related to incitement to violence, discrimination between citizens, or defamation of individuals, their penalties shall be determined by law.”
It is evident from the text of Article 19 of the Press and Media Regulation Law that the legislator attempted to enumerate the violations that media outlets and personal websites and accounts could commit. The legislator used types of violations mentioned in Article 71 of the Constitution and introduced other unjustified forms of violations.
The legislator ignored the fact that several texts already criminalize these actions. Crimes such as assaulting individuals through insult, defamation, or disparaging divine religions have been explicitly criminalized in the Egyptian Penal Code.
Simulating the constitutional text is, in reality, an attempt to divert attention in an inappropriate context. The constitutional text removes the possibility of imposing a freedom deprivation penalty for general publication crimes, exempting only three forms of publishing crimes: discrimination, incitement to violence, or defamation of individuals. On the other hand, there is a problem with the absolute equality in the application of Article 19 between media outlets and personal websites or accounts, which inherently lack professional or regulatory controls.
Sanctions Related to Violating the Code of Journalistic and Media Honor
The SCMR issued several decisions and codes intended to regulate the work of various media outlets. Among these releases is the Sanctions List, which is a part of the Licensing Code.
The Sanctions List generally aims to apply the sanctions specified in the List regarding violations committed by journalistic institutions, national journalistic institutions, media institutions, public media institutions, media outlets, public media outlets, websites, and newspapers, and sanctions and administrative and financial measures specified for these violations.6
The Sanctions List faced significant objections from journalistic circles following its issuance, with press and media workers expressing its non-acceptance of it. The Journalists Syndicate issued a statement clarifying that it had sent a report with observations on the Sanctions List to the SCMR.
Violating the professional Code of Honor (the Journalistic Honor Code, the Media Honor Code), or the standards approved by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, or written customs (codes), or inciting the commission of a criminal offense, or targeting an entity or person with ill intent constitutes a violation requiring the imposition of one of the following sanctions or some of them, as determined by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation:
- Payment of a financial amount not exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand Egyptian pounds or its equivalent in foreign currency.
- Prohibition of publication or broadcast of the violating material for a specified period.
- Blocking the website for a specified or permanent period.
- Blocking the personal website with more than five thousand followers for a specified period.
Although the Sanctions List is supposed to apply primarily to those addressed by the Press and Media Regulation Law, excluding personal websites and accounts, as mentioned earlier, the List includes sanctions that are equally applied and under the same criteria to both media outlets and personal accounts. The code also assumes that personal websites and accounts must adhere to the Journalistic and Media Honor Code, which is conceptually challenging and difficult to envision in practical terms.
The sanctions stipulated in the Sanctions List are not limited to adherence to journalistic work standards and rules but extend to an undefined space where sanctions can be imposed on personal websites.
Article 16 of the Penalty Code states:
“Using or allowing the use of expressions or phrases that convey defamation, slander, or disparagement, or that insult the dignity of individuals, or undermine financial integrity, or violate the privacy of citizens’ lives, or disseminating false information, or making baseless accusations, or involving threats, or hurting public sentiments constitutes a violation requiring the imposition of one of the following penalties:
- Compelling an apology in the same manner in which the violation occurred.
- Payment of a financial amount not exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand Egyptian pounds or its equivalent in foreign currency.
- Prohibition of publication, broadcast, or blocking of the page, channel, program, or website for a specified period.
- Blocking non-personal websites for a specified period or permanently.
- Blocking personal websites with more than five thousand followers for a specified period or permanently.“
It is evident from the text of the article that influencers have been affected similarly to Egyptian media outlets by the attempts to establish discretionary spaces that allow the SCMR to take actions that impose control on personal accounts and websites without specific criteria or standards. Phrases like “hurting public sentiments” are expressions that cannot be comprehended in terms of their reasons or understood in terms of their formal and objective aspects.
In May 2020, the SCMR issued a Licensing Regulation that regulates the schedules and procedures for submitting applications to obtain the necessary licenses for practicing media and journalistic activities. The regulation addressed entities operating in the fields of journalism and media, including news websites, press websites, cable distribution companies, and encrypted digital platforms.
Six months later, the SCMR introduced amendments, adding new entities subject to the Licensing Regulation, specifically “Social Information Technology Companies.” The code defined these companies as:
“Companies managing platforms or websites providing news or media services for profit, enabling users to share or exchange news content.”
The amendments mandated these companies to obtain an “accreditation certificate” from the SCMR, confirming compliance with technical, legal, and regulatory requirements for activity within Egypt.
The amendments also included regulations related to content control published on the platforms of “Social Information Technology Companies.” Notably, the code required that the accreditation application include approval for content removal when harmful.
Article 64 of the Licensing Regulation listed specific cases where content could be considered harmful, including:
- Content inciting hatred or harm to users, causing intimidation or damaging their reputation.
- Content containing defamation of individuals or state institutions, threatening social peace and security.
- Content discriminating based on race, color, religion, lineage, origin, or nationality.
- Content inciting racism or specific or general violence.
- Content inciting actions violating human rights and dignity.
- Content constituting criminal offenses under prevailing laws in the Arab Republic of Egypt.
- Content violating copyrights, intellectual property, or trademarks.
- Content including false information or personal or public rumors.
- Content inciting or encouraging criminal acts.
- Content directed at children without consideration for their age rating.
The regulation emphasized the need for mechanisms ensuring that accredited social technology companies respond to requests for the removal of harmful content within 24 hours of notification or immediate removal if a violation is proven through examination by a relevant legal authority. Furthermore, these companies must retain the infringing content for four months as evidence in case the decision is to delete or remove it.
In addition, the Licensing Regulation grants discretionary powers to the SCMR to take appropriate measures according to its judgment in case of non-compliance with deletion or removal. The Licensing Regulation does not explicitly specify the actions the SCMR can take, but it is implied that it has the authority to revoke or cancel accreditation certificates. This is understood from the general context related to the SCMR’s powers outlined in the Press and Media Regulation Law, the Licensing Regulation, and the Sanctions List, indicating that the SCMR has the right to suspend or block harmful content whenever it deems necessary.
The amendments introduced to the Licensing Regulation have direct implications for the work of influencers. If a website or social media platform obtains an “accreditation certificate” within Egypt, these platforms are now obliged to comply with the decisions of the SCRM to block harmful content.
This means that influencers are facing a blockade with high possibility of blocking or disrupting the operation of their accounts. On one hand, there are numerous violations for which the enforcement guidelines are unclear, such as violations of the journalistic or media work code. On the other hand, social media platforms are obligated to implement the decisions of the SCMR without questioning or applying their internal policies.
After highlighting the various attempts to impose different forms of control on the work of influencers, it can be unequivocally stated that there is an unjustified expansion in enacting various legislations that attempt to equate the responsibilities of journalistic, news, or media websites that operate professionally with influencers.
The main difference lies in the fact that the practice of a journalist or media professional is under established professional rules and union protection that allows for the representation of these categories. This is in addition to explicit rights and guarantees—though not necessarily comprehensive—stated in the Press and Media Regulation Law and its complementary regulations, as well as constitutional guarantees that serve as a barrier or a challenge to the validity of legislations contrary to their rights. However, all these guarantees are not enjoyed by influencers.
Furthermore, there is a continuous state of uncertainty that the SCMR seeks to create regarding the legality of the influencers’ work. The SCMR possesses punitive tools against influencers, while remaining silent about the legality of their work. This leaves a confusing impression, perhaps intentionally, with the aim of keeping these categories in a state of fear and hesitation regarding the content discussed across various platforms.
1 The first article of the provisions of the Press and Media Regulation Law and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Law No. 180 of the year 2018.
2 Review in this context the second paragraph of Article 19 of the Press and Media Regulation Law and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Law No. 180 of the year 2018.
3 Decision No. 16 of 2019 by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation regarding the issuance of the penalties and measures regulations that may be imposed on entities subject to the provisions of the Press and Media Regulation Law and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Law No. 180 of the year 2018.
4 Review in this context Article 1 of the provisions of Decision No. 16 of the year regarding the issuance of the penalties and measures regulations that may be imposed on entities subject to the provisions of the Press and Media Regulation Law and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Law No. 180 of the year 2018.
5 Article 23 of the decision by the President of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation No. 16 of 2019 regarding the issuance of penalties and measures regulations that may be imposed on entities subject to the provisions of the Press and Media Regulation Law.
6 Decision No. 26 of 2020 by the President of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation regarding the issuance of regulations for licensing by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.
7 Among the definitions provided in Article 1 of Decision No. 26 of 2020 by the President of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation regarding the issuance of regulations for licensing by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.