GV Essay Competition: Submissions from MENA

Turn On Internet Now in Egypt

Protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt calling on the government to resume the internet service after a three day black out in 2011. Photo by Hossam ElHamalawy on Flickr.

As part of the 2015 GV Summit, we invited our community members and partners to write essays that explain and illuminate the real-world effects of an Internet-related policy on citizens in a specific country or region. The goal of this competition was to amplify the voices and perspectives of our community and to help show the world the effects of law and practice, and that they did.

Below is the essay submission that focused on the Middle East and North Africa


Internet Policies in the Arab world . Transitions and Challenges

In 2011, revolutions erupted across the Middle East and North Africa region, storming and raging through several countries while slightly affecting some others, resulting in a domino effect that was subsequently known as the “Arab Spring”. These revolutions threatened the removal of oppressive authoritarian regimes in countries such as Libya,Egypt, Syria and Yemen.

The event that set this chain reaction off was Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia setting himself on fire in front of the headquarters of the state of Sidi bouzid in a cry of anger and frustration caused by the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation he received at the hands of a municipality officer.

The Arab Spring did not only affect the MENA region through several changes in the political sphere leading to the toppling down of a number of authoritarian regimes and relatively transitioning Arab countries towards democracy but it has also sparked a series of a rarely discussed formative changes that significantly impacted social life and the way people viewed social media and the Internet as a whole.

Typically, when discussing the Arab Spring what is focused on are the political changes and dynamics in counties where the revolts took place, however , The past three years were a“paradigm shift” in terms of the populations’ exposure to social media through the utilization of technology and media tools ,they have redefined the role of such tools in everyday life, consequently leading to a tremendous increase in the number of Internet and social media users across the region .

The term “social media”itself, prior to the demonstrations in 2011 had not yet been fully introduced to the Arab world, because traditionally the media was censored and controlled by their respective authorities.There was little freedom of speech and freedom of press and so social media acted as a way for people to have unfiltered expression and reportage.

Today almost every citizen in the region is equipped with a social media tool that is used to upload videos and pictures taken right from the heart of events inside squares and sit-ins, and to share them with the whole nation .Thus revolutionized what people think of as “the media”. Many citizens were largely unfamiliar with the concept of using social media because freedom of speech, in general, was largely constrained due to the authoritarian nature of regimes in these countries.

Internet policies in the MENA region have always been stumbling blocks that prevented Arab citizens from fully exploiting such platforms and enjoying a sense of personal freedom and empowerment. Instead ,governments harnessed the Internet for propaganda purposes to deepen their control and anyone who went against the wave, saw themselves harassed, arrested, put on surveillance, imprisoned or in some cases, even killed.

In Saudi Arabia a number of bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned under the pretext of threatening national security. Similarly, in Bahrain where home raids and arrest campaigns on bloggers and human rights activists have been ongoing since even before 2011.Some bloggers died in custody due to torture and human rights activists either imprisoned or forced to live in exile.

Strictly imposed censorship and surveillance in countries such as Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen on several social media networks reached its full throttle as users were banned from using the Internet or social media. People who use these platforms to express resentment at the country’s political situation or to criticize the role of the authorities in charge faced threats, harassment, censorship, arrest, imprisonment and in some cases, death.

All of the aforementioned factors have led to a major oppression in Arab countries affected by upheavals. Citizens were barred from voicing their opinions on platforms utilized by almost all nations around the globe and deprived them from experiencing a sense of global citizenship that their peers in other countries fully enjoy. Fortunately,these harsh polices did not deter the pursuit of democracy as we have witnessed an emergence of awareness about the importance of enacting better Internet policies, including civil societies and activist groups becoming involved in the process of Internet governance as multi-stakeholders

Tunisia, one of the smallest countries in the Arab world and the cradle of the “Arab Spring” has achieved significant steps towards implementing democracy and moving towards building a system of multi-stakeholder-ism with its interment governance policies. and even though this progress is still hotly debated, the Tunisian case stands out among its other peers in the region for having the greatest success.

The importance of Internet policies is inseparably linked to any country's democracy and institutional integrity. Having the Internet regulated in a way that violates human rights and largely keeps people repressed without the ability to exercise personal freedoms would surely result in undesirable ramifications and upheavals.

In conclusion, Internet policies in the Arab world have always been harnessed by governments as a tool to suppress citizens and keep them under constant surveillance. Populations in the MENA region have revolted and are still revolting against these policies; they are achieving progress albeit slow. The Internet is a human right that should be protected by national and internationally binding laws as it is an inseparable part of any democratic transition. Through a greater local advocacy justice , recognition of the globally-binding human rights and a full transparency in the implementation process ; The MENA region can undoubtedly achieve success and suitability and become a leading example for other nations in transition .


Will the Right to Be Forgotten Inspire Repressive Regimes to Expand Internet Censorship?

The EU’s “right to be forgotten” has left many advocates in the Arab region fearful that governments will exploit the law to further curtail freedom of information and expression on the Internet.

The ruling allows EU citizens to request that search engines de-index links to personal information deemed “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” so that it does not appear in search results. The court clarified that the right to be forgotten “is not absolute” and a case-by-case assessment is needed to make sure that an individual’s right to be forgotten does not infringe on the public’s right to know.

But since the ruling, Google reports that it has received over 135,000 requests for removal of links from its search results. In August, the world’s largest search engine announced that it had approved just over 50% of requests received. These included links to legitimate journalistic work and news articles published by the BBC, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail, some of which were reinstated in response to journalists’ objections. The company periodically releases selective data about the process, which can be found here.

What if such a policy were to take hold in the Arab region?
Although its implementation is currently only limited to Europe, the “right to be forgotten” ruling could inspire repressive regimes to expand their Internet filtering practices. “It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things,” Google’s CEO Larry Page warned in late May.

In an email interview, Dhouha Ben Youssef, a Tunisian net freedom and privacy advocate wrote that she agreed with Page.

“These governments will take advantage from this directive. Powerful people will be able to hide disgraceful actions for their own e-reputation. For example, politicians could ask for the removal of posts that criticize their policies and power misuse,” Ben Youssef explained. “It will largely impact the investigative journalism emerging in the region.”

There is no reason why Arab governments couldn’t put in place their own “right to be forgotten” model, if they wanted to. All they have to do is draft another repressive law or simply order ISPs to block content violating the controversial principle.

Governments in the region already deploy strict libel laws and broad privacy protections with no legal oversight or appeal mechanisms. These policies systematically deny users access to information and serve to prosecute those who reveal misconduct or wrongdoing by state officials and other powerful actors. Last spring, Social Media Exchange conducted an in-depth study on these types of laws — their work could serve as a roadmap for advocates seeking to preclude lawmaking in this direction.

The UAE's Cybercrime Decree lays the groundwork:

In 2012, the UAE passed Federal Legal Decree No. 5/2012 on combating cyber crimes, allegedly to “provide legal protection of privacy of all information published online.”

However, like many other repressive laws approved by Arab regimes over the years, this law is yet another tool to legitimize suppression of online speech and political dissent.

The decree includes an exhaustive list of illegal activities, all criminalized under a mantle of privacy protection. It outlaws:

…using an electronic network or any information technology means for the unwarranted violation of the privacy of others by eavesdropping, intercepting, recording or disclosing conversations, communications, audio and video material; taking photographs of others, creating electronic photos of others, disclosing, copying or saving them; publishing news, electronic photographs or photographs or scenes, comments, data and information even if they are authentic.

The right to be forgotten and the UAE’s decree No. 5/2012 have one dangerous point in common: they both restrict the dissemination of authentic content for the purpose of protecting the privacy rights of others. In the Arab region the aim appears to be to conceal evidence of misconduct by politicians and public officials. While in the EU the right to be forgotten is supposedly aimed at protecting private individuals, the fact that former EU politicians are entitled to exercise the right to be forgotten is troubling.

The Internet and the world should not forget the disgraceful acts and corruption of politicians once they leave office. We have all seen how public officials are tempted again by power shortly after they leave office. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced his political comeback despite corruption allegations against him. In Tunisia, where I work as a freelance journalist, officials who served under the former autocratic and corrupt rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali are making a comeback to the political scene and running for legislative and presidential elections.

One might argue that Internet filtering is already rampant in the region and that the EU’s right to be forgotten ruling is not going to improve or worsen the situation. This is true to some extent, but the level of Internet filtering practices differ from one country to another. While some governments practice extensive Internet filtering, others are keeping it at minimum levels.

In Tunisia, for example, the Internet has remained open and relatively uncensored since the ousting of Ben Ali. Yet a number of government officials still advocate for the reinstatement of filtering practices to combat “defamation” and “terrorism.” Soon, they may begin to call for the filtering of the Internet to protect the right to be forgotten of others, arguing that even “democratic” Europe enshrines this right.

Dictators have plenty to learn from undemocratic practices of “Western democracies”

“For Reporters Without Borders (RWB), if they show me how France monitors the cyberspace, we will commit ourselves to do better.” Such was the response of former ICTs minister Mongi Marzouk, when RWB criticized the Tunisian government for setting up the controversial Technical Telecommunications Agency, tasked with investigating “ICT crimes.”

“This law took as reference the Budapest Convention [on Cybercrime],” Marzouk said in defence of the decree establishing the agency. Although the Budapest Convention marked a significant step forward in building international legal standards for cybercrime, it is far from perfect — many advocates believe the Convention lacks sufficient protections for non-malicious use of certain technologies.

Arab government officials do not hesitate to claim that their practices or laws are as democratic as those of Europe, even when they are not. They also learn from the undemocratic practices of “Western democracies.” Just as the NSA’s mass spying practices can aid dictatorships, so can the right to be forgotten.

EU legislators need to keep in mind that each law they draft could either inspire pro-democracy reformers in lesser democratic countries or incite dictators to “do bad things.” It is up to them to choose a side.


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