Regional updates: Middle East and North Africa

What were the main digital policy regional updates in the Middle East and North Africa region? This space brings you the main updates month by month, summarised by the observatory's curators.

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June 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Internet cut-off during national exams in Algeria

14 Jun 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Algerian Ministry of National Education announced that the Internet will be shut down for an hour during High School Certificate Examination, scheduled during 20-25 June 2018, to stop exam cheats. Nouria Benghabrit, Minister of National Education, ‎expressed that ‘[the authorities] are not comfortable with the decision to cut the Internet, but [they] should not passively stand in front of such a possible leak.’ During secondary school exams in 2016, social media services were also blocked to prevent the publication of ‘bogus questions’, as reported by officials to Algeria's APS news agency. Similar practices have been reported in Iraq.

Algerian blogger sentenced ten years to prison

11 Jun 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

After more than a year of detention, Algerian blogger, Touati Merzoug, received a ten year sentence for ‘complicit relations with a foreign power’ and ‘inciting rebellion.’ The conviction is reportedly linked to an interview that Merzoug conducted over Skype and published online, with an Israeli diplomat. The interview shed light on protests and riots that burst in different parts of the country by Algerians to demonstrate against ‘austerity measures including an increase in value-added, income and property taxes, and a decrease in fuel subsidies.’ The Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International decried the sentence and called for the independence of press in Algeria.​

Egyptian parliament deliberates a draft law on the regulation of media and press

10 Jun 2018 | 

Content policy, Freedom of expression

The Egyptian cabinet submitted a draft law comprised of three bills that separately regulate the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the National Media Authority, and the National Press Authority - the three bodies that altogether regulate the Egyptian media outlets in all forms including printed, broadcast and electronic. The bills were contested by several Members of Parliament (MPs). While Osama Heikal, head of parliament’s media committee, said that ‘the new laws will ensure the independence of the press and media in Egypt through unprecedented guarantees”, MP Talaat Khalil condemned the law for ’eliminat[ing] freedom of speech and expression.’

Egyptian parliament approves a new law the regulates digital space

5 Jun 2018 | 

Cybercrime, Privacy and data protection, Content policy

The Egyptian parliament passed a cybercrime law. The law provides severe sentences and hefty fines for crimes related to privacy, censorship, hacking, and fraud. According to the law, penalties range from three months to five years in prison,  and fines could reach up to 20 million Egyptian pounds for Internet users and service providers who fail to comply with the law. The law awaits the presidential approval and was criticised for reportedly quelling the opposition. It further grants the investigative authorities the right to ‘order the censorship of websites’ that ‘pose a threat to national security or compromise national security or the national economy.’​

Egyptian court rules YouTube should be blocked

31 May 2018 | 

Content policy, Freedom of expression

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that YouTube should be blocked for one month for hosting a short movie that denigrates the Prophet Mohammed. The case to block the movie was filed in 2013 and a lower administrative court ordered the blocking of YouTube for hosting the movie, but the order was appealed by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. Amro Gharbiya, technical and human rights officer of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), explained that ‘in the case of YouTube, it remains for the plaintiff to deliver the executive version of the ruling to the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, which in turn transmits it to local telecommunications companies to start implementing it.’​

April 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

The Egyptian cybercrime bill is debated by the parliamentary committee

16 Apr 2018 | 

Cybercrime, Other human rights

In Egypt, the cybercrime bill, which was introduced in September 2016, is now under discussion by the parliamentary Communication and Information Technology Committee (CITC) and upon its approval, it will be sent to the parliament plenary for vote. The discussions on the bill, which started in March 2018, witnessed a strong government presence, including representatives from ministries of interior, defence, and telecommunications and information technology. The discussions which continued into April suggested harsh penalties for web administrators that violate the law. The liability of service providers to protect users’ data, the protection for bona fide parties, and the definition of national security provided by the law were further tackled during the last meetings.

New court decision in Egypt revokes suspension of Uber operations

7 Apr 2018 | 

Convergence, Economic - other issues

In March 2018, an administrative court in Egypt ordered authorities to suspend the licenses of Uber and competitor Careem pending a final court ruling in a case brought forward by taxi drivers. Uber challenged the decision, and the Cairo Court of urgent matters decided that the March ruling should be suspended, and Uber and Careem should be permitted to continue their operations until a final decision is issued. The Egyptian government has also challenged the March decision in front of the High Administrative Court, and submitted a draft law to regulate ride-hailing services to the country's parliament.

Personal data of Lebanese registered to vote abroad were compromised

6 Apr 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection

In February 2018, the Lebanese embassies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Hague sent an email to the Lebanese residents in their respective countries with the personal details of Lebanese citizens registered to vote for the parliamentary elections to confirm their registration details. While the embassy in the UAE exposed the details of more than 5000 Lebanese citizens, the embassy in the Hague sent the email to just over 200 recipients. A further compromise of the voters’ database was revealed on 29 March 2018 when a Lebanese citizen living in Paris received a message from a candidate in the election, who got access to the voters’ information that was intended for someone else. The citizen believes this might have happened because his mobile number was used to register other voters. Commentators argue that these incidents show that ‘the legal framework for data protection in Lebanon is weak.’

Twitter: the vast majority of account removal requests came from Turkey

6 Apr 2018 | 

Content policy, Freedom of expression

The last transparency report published by Twitter revealed that Turkey is responsible for more than half of the content removal requests received from governments. From July to December 2017, Turkey submitted 4294 requests which represent approximately 65% of the worldwide requests. Out of the 6544 reported accounts, Twitter removed 2157 for violating its terms of services on the account of covering terrorism, impersonation, and abusive behavior and withheld content in 3% of these cases. Also, out of the 58 verified journalists and news outlets accounts that were subject to legal demands by Turkey, only one account was withheld for violating the Turkish anti-terror law.

#Palestine 2017 report: Challenges to digital activism

3 Apr 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh) published its annual report on Palestinian digital activism in 2017 which investigates Internet accessibility and social media activities. Palestinians have launched different social media campaigns for social and political causes. Yet, the report argues that there have been threats to digital space for activism, and that Palestinians have been subject to actions limiting their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information online. The report also lists several activities described as cracking down on digital space in 2017, such as the blocking of 29 websites, the approval of a cybercrime law that reportedly clamps down on opposition, and the arrests of citizens for their online activities. With the absence of adequate legal safeguards, the report reinforces the need to develop accountability mechanisms that allow Palestinians to report on such infringements.

February 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Bahraini human rights defender sentenced five years over a tweet

21 Feb 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Lookout published a security research report on a malware espionage campaign that steals hundreds of gigabytes of data via mobile devices. The program, which was running since 2012 and has adversely impacted thousands of people in more than 20 countries, was tracked to a building owned by the Lebanese intelligence agency. In response to the report, a number of Lebanese human rights organisations called upon the General Prosecutor to investigate the allegedly secret large-scale surveillance. Mr Abbas Ibrahim, Director General of General Directorate of General Security, said ‘the General Security does not have these type of capabilities. We wish we had these capabilities.’Nabeel Rajab, a human rights defender and the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, received a new five-year jail term for expressing his opinion online. Rajab is already serving a two-year sentence for criticising the Bahraini authorities in TV interviews. The new charges, however, are related to Rajab’s tweets in 2015 that denounced alleged torture in Bahrain prison Jaw and  killing of Yemeni civilians by the Saudi-led coalition. The sentence was backlashed by local and international human rights organisations seeing it as a flagrant infringement of freedom of expression and a clampdown on dissenting voices.

Egypt blocks Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages Project

19 Feb 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

On 3 February 2018, the Egyptian government blocked the Accelerated Mobile Pages project which is an open source publishing technology to create mobile-friendly content. As a result, some users reported problems accessing websites that are routed to AMP pages. In May 2017, 21 news websites were reported as being blocked in Egypt and the number exponentially increased to 496 websites in February 2018. In the view of the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, the blocking of AMP was aimed at disabling users from getting access to the websites that were censored by the Egyptian authorities, after publishers resorted to other services such as AMP to publish their materials.

Internet blackout in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula amid military operation

14 Feb 2018 | 

Access, Other human rights

The Egyptian authorities shut down Internet and telecommunication services in the Sinai Peninsula as the Armed Forces launched a military campaign to root out ’terrorists and criminal elements and organisations’. In response, online activists kicked off the ‘Sinai is out of the coverage area’ Twitter campaign to voice out concerns about disrupting networks and the risks of disconnecting civilians. Intermittent network shutdowns during military and security operations were previously reported by North Sinai residents. Such disruptions find their basis in the Egyptian Telecommunication Law which allows the Egyptian authorities to restrict access to telecommunication networks in case of national security issues (Article 67).

State of Privacy Lebanon

9 Feb 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Other human rights, Cybersecurity

Privacy International in collaboration with local partner in Lebanon Social Media Exchange (SMEX) investigated the state of privacy in Lebanon. The report includes a legal analysis and policy reviews of the various frameworks that regulate privacy, communication surveillance, data protection, and identification scheme  in Lebanon. Key findings point to an absence of necessary legal instruments to adequately safeguard privacy and data protection, and draw attention to the lack of a data protection authority. Further updates on the state of privacy in other Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia were produced by Privacy International in cooperation with local partners.

A draft bill raises concerns about Internet censorship in Turkey

8 Feb 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Access, Other human rights

A draft bill that is reportedly conducive to digital censorship was introduced to the Turkish Parliament by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and was criticised by the opposition for quelling on free speech. The bill permits the federal TV and radio watchdog RTÜK to monitor digital content, and expands its authority to censoring audio and video online content and social media posts for reasons related to national security and moral values. Transportation Minister Ahmet Arslan stated that the bill aims at ‘preventing wrongs’ and the distribution of materials ‘against national security [and the] moral order of the country’. The bill also includes provisions regarding the licensing and regulation of online broadcasters, including international networks like YouTube and Netflix, by the RTÜK, which is currently required only for radio and television broadcasters.

January 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Policy void threatens the rights of mobile users in Arab countries

24 Jan 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Freedom of expression

A new report was published by Social Media Exchange on Dependent Yet Disenfranchised: The Policy Void that Threatens the Rights of Mobile Users in Arab States. According to the research, the terms of service and privacy policies of mobile telecom operators in the Arab region do not provide enough safeguards to human rights online. Operators do not make their policy documents accessible to their customers; out of the 66 mobile telecom operators studied, only fourteen publish their terms of service, and seven publish the privacy policies. Moreover, they neither publish transparency reports nor provide remedy mechanisms to address complaints related to the freedom of expression.

Mapping digital rights violations and threats in Palestine

22 Jan 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Freedom of expression, Access

The Arab Centre for Social Media Advancement (7amleh) published a report on the Internet Freedoms in Palestine: Mapping of Digital Rights Violations and Threats, focusing on the challenges to the telecommunications infrastructure and the violations to digital rights by state and non-state actors in Palestine. The report argues that digital rights are curbed by the political and geographical fragmentation, and pinpoints three key recommendations to improve the situation. First, civil society organisations have a fundamental role in raising awareness and defending digital rights. Second, technology and social media companies should be held accountable for infringing digital rights. Third, more research on gender based violence on the Internet is required to counter violations against Palestine women.

Two Jordanian journalists were arrested for infringing the press and publication and cybercrime laws

17 Jan 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Cybercrime

When the Jfranews website accused the Jordanian Finance Minister, Mr Omar Malhas, of tax evasion, the minister filed a complaint against the news website. The general prosecutor arrested the editor-in-chief, Mr Shadi al-Zinati, and the editor, Mr Omar Sabra al-Mahrama, who have been charged under the Jordanian Press and Publication Law and Cybercrime Law. Mr Sherif Mansour, Committee to Protect Journalists MENA Programme Coordinator, stressed that the ‘Jordanian authorities must not use broad and vaguely defined laws to imprison journalists and stifle media freedom.’ To denounce the throttle of freedom of expression, the Jordanian journalists held a sit-in at the Jordanian Press Association to demand the release of the two journalists.

The Tunisian parliament requested the withdrawal of the biometrics identification bill

11 Jan 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Freedom of expression

Upon receiving requests from many members of parliament to amend the draft law, the Tunisian Ministry of Interior withdrew the biometrics identification bill from the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Since the bill was introduced in October 2016, it was criticised by human rights defenders for threatening privacy and data protection for security reasons, particularly due to the lack of adequate safeguards to the privacy of Tunisian citizens holding the digitised national ID. Dr Chawki Gaddes, Head of the National Data Protection Authority, has also spoken about the challenges of storing more than 8 million Tunisian fingerprints in one database, which is antithetical to international human rights standards.

A security research report unveiled a new surveillance program

10 Jan 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Freedom of expression, Cybersecurity

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Lookout published a security research report on a malware espionage campaign that steals hundreds of gigabytes of data via mobile devices. The program, which was running since 2012 and has adversely impacted thousands of people in more than 20 countries, was tracked to a building owned by the Lebanese intelligence agency. In response to the report, a number of Lebanese human rights organisations called upon the General Prosecutor to investigate the allegedly secret large-scale surveillance. Mr Abbas Ibrahim, Director General of General Directorate of General Securitysaid ‘the General Security does not have these type of capabilities. We wish we had these capabilities.’

Challenges to Internet freedom in Iran

3 Jan 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Freedom of expression, Access

Amid the recent anti-government protests which erupted on 28 December 2017 and continued until January 2018 in Iran, the Iranian authorities have embraced several measures to disrupt Internet access. Ten citizen-journalists were arrested according to Reporters Without Borders. Additionally, the Iranian authorities cut off Internet access and blocked Instagram, the photo-sharing application, and Telegram, the instant messaging application, ‘to preserve the peace and security of citizens’, as reported by the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. In response, four UN Special Rapporteurs condemned the clampdown on Internet freedom and urged the authorities to respect protesters’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly.​

November 2017

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Saudi Internet activist sentenced over social media account

10 Nov 2017 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Saudi Internet activist Naima Al-Matrood was jailed by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Saudi Arabia. Her trial, which started on 10 April 2017, one year after her arrest on  13 April 2016, included many charges for ‘allegedly participating in a number of anti-state demonstrations and rallies, being linked to a media cell, and violating public order by creating two social networking accounts on Twitter, Facebook to demand the release of some detainees.‘

Complaint filed against French surveillance company over sale of surveillance technology to Egypt

9 Nov 2017 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (IDH), with the support of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) filed a complaint against the French company Amesys (renamed Nexa Technologies) for the sale of surveillance technology to the Egyptian regime. The criminal investigation was requested based on the ‘complicity to torture and enforced disappearances in Egypt.’ The FIDH lawyer said that despite being pursued by judicial authorities in France, the company continue to sell their surveillance technologies.



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