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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Curated by Noha Fathy
Bahraini human rights defender sentenced five years over a tweet
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
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
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
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
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.
Curated by Noha Fathy
Policy void threatens the rights of mobile users in Arab countries
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
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
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
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
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.’
Challenges to Internet freedom in Iran
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.
Curated by Noha Fathy
Saudi Internet activist sentenced over social media account
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
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.
Curated by Hamza Ben Mehrez
UAE: Arab World Online report released
The Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Government (MBRSG) organised an open event to release and discuss the findings of the Arab Social Media Report-MBRSG. The report, published on Wednesday, 25th October 2017, assessed public readiness towards and concerns about emerging digital technologies across the Arab region. It also examined the digital transformation and societal trends brought about by the fourth industrial revolution in the Arab region.
Tunisia: National Internet Governance (IGF) Meeting
17 October 2017 | Capacity development
On 17 October, Tunisia organised its second national IGF under the theme ‘Shape Your Digital Future’. On 16 October, 50 participants attended the first Tunsian Internet governance school, (TSIG) where students, activists, engineers, and human rights advocates were trained on Internet governance history and policy.Many themes were discussed during the forum itself, including Internet governance and regulation, cybersecurity and privacy, technology and political transparency, online content, and the multistakeholder process.
Curated by Noha Fathy
Syrian civil war videos flagged erroneously on YouTube
The documentation of the Syrian conflict on YouTube is at risk due to new measures adopted by the video-sharing company to curb inappropriate, extreme content, under pressure from the international community to bridle extremist content. The measures include machine learning protocols that identify objectionable materials for human experts to decide whether they should be taken down. Around 180 channels connected to Syria were halted through these protocols which jeopardise the documentation of flagrant human rights violations by Syrian activists. While YouTube announced that it will restore improperly erased videos, the Syrian Archive is seeking alternative ways to archive the Syrian civil war. It has also reinstated 20 channels and 400 000 videos; 150 000 videos are still in danger of being removed erroneously.
Human rights defender prosecuted in Bahrain over social media posts
Digital activist Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, is facing trial in Bahrain. In June 2017, Rajab was detained on charges of ‘spreading rumours in wartime’ and ‘insulting a neighbouring country’ by tweeting and re-tweeting posts about the war in Yemen and the torture allegations in the Jau prison. The Bahraini court postponed ruling on his case until 11 September 2017 when a new judge adjourned the case again until 27 September 2017.
Freedom of expression online challenged in Palestine
On 4 September, Hebron-based human rights activist Issa Amro was arrested by the Palestinian authorities for denouncing the arrest of a journalist on Facebook. Amro was charged with ‘causing division’ and besmirching the authorities, on the account of the newly published cybercrime law in June 2017. Amnesty International condemned such ‘attacks on freedom of expression’ by the authorities which include the arrest of six journalists, the shutdown of 29 websites critical of the government, and the introduction of a draconian cybercrime law that quells on media freedom and dissenting voices. After one week of detention, Amro was released from police custody.
Tunisian parliamentarians to vote on biometrics identification bill after summer recess
In October 2016, a biometrics identification bill was introduced in Tunisia that requires all Tunisians to hold a national ID with encoded sensitive data including a photograph, digitised fingerprints, social security number, and home address. The bill was criticised by human rights defenders, for threatening privacy and data protection. The Parliamentary Committee on Rights and Liberties voted on the bill in July 2017, and is currently awaiting parliamentary vote after the summer recess.