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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July 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Eye Police app intimidates the privacy of Lebanese citizens

27 Aug 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection

The Lebanese Ministry of Information kicked off the Eye Police app on 12 June to improve public service delivery, by providing a platform for citizens to report issues directly to the pertinent ministries. Social Media Exchange (SMEX) reported that the app does not provide the necessary safeguards to user data. According to SMEX, ‘[o]nce users file complaints, the NNA allegedly publishes them on its website to give them greater visibility.’ Further threats include the requests for unnecessary permission to install Eye Police on Android devices which jeopardies the privacy of users. Moreover, the app allegedly requires users to submit personal data and stores it on unprotected servers that do not have Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption for data exchange.

August 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Telegram app traffic was illegally rerouted in Iran

1 Aug 2018 | 

Access, Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) rerouted the traffic of the Telegram app for one hour on 30 July which is in contradiction to the Iranian Computer Crimes law, Articles 736 and 737, which stipulates a fine of up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of 40 million Iranian Rials (approximately USD$ 906) for such a crime. Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iranian Telecommunications Minister, tweeted on 30 July, acknowledging the engagement of the TCI ‘in changing its topology and consolidating its provincial network in Shiraz and Bushehr [cities].’ He added that ‘[i]f confirmed, the TCI’s misdeed, whether intentional or not, will trigger a heavy fine.’

Law to protect personal data endorsed by the Egyptian Cabinet

7 Aug 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection

A new data protection law was approved by the Egyptian Cabinet on 7 August 2018. The bill, which has still not published, outlaws the collection, process, or disclosure of personal data without the legal permission or consent of the person in question. If the law is not complied with, a prison sentence of no less than one year and a fine between 100 – 100 000 Egyptian pounds (approximately USD$ 5605 – 56 050) shall be imposed. The new law aims at promoting investment and ‘organis[ing] transboundary movements and electronic marketing activities [in order] to control the process of electronic processing of personal data and to ensure the rights of citizens …’ explained Amr Talaat, Minister of Communication and Information Technology. The bill is still awaiting the approval of the Council of States and Parliament.

Social media is threatened in Turkey

14 Aug 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

In the light of the financial crisis in Turkey, a clampdown on social media was instigated when the government embarked on investigations into the ‘manipulative stories on media and operational social media accounts’ that threaten ‘social peace, unity and economic security,’ clarified the Chief Prosecutor's Office. Additionally, ‘a judicial investigation has been launched into 346 social media accounts who shared posts to provoke the rise in the dollar exchange rate’, reported Turkey's Interior Ministry. Turkey’s Financial Crime Investigation Board (MASAK) is also investigating the fake news that aimed at manipulating the economy. Amid the state of emergency declared after the abortive coup, Twitter accounts of an array of pro-Gülen journalists and media outlets and pro-Kurdish media outlets among other advocates were further blocked by court order at the end of July.

Online activists are under interrogations by Lebanese authorities over social media posts

13 Aug 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

Ten online journalists and advocates were questioned by Lebanese security agencies over Facebook and Twitter posts that reportedly included advocacy for online activism, sarcastic comments about religious figures, and the criticism of politicians. Some of them were forced to sign pledges to refrain from publishing ‘slanderous’ content, and some, to deactivate their social media accounts or else cease posting on them for a specific time. According to the Lebanese Penal Code [in Arabic], defamation of the president and public figures is a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Six online journalists sentenced long jail terms in Iran

22 Aug 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Tehran Revolutionary Court ruled against six journalists and editors for Majzooban Noor; a website for the Sufi religious community of Gonabadi dervishes in Iran. Members of the editorial committee alongside citizen journalists were issued sentences from seven years up to 26 years in prison and 74 lashes for each. After completing their jail terms, they will still have an internal exile and a ban on all civil society and journalistic activity simultaneously for two years. Since they rebuffed to attend the hearing due to the absence of legal representation, the sentences were passed in absentia.

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.



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