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The session explored many facets of digital development across the MENA region, and the issues that policymakers and legislators face in establishing the modern, effective data protection and privacy regimes.
Mr Tijani Ben Jemaa, Director, Mediterranean Federation of Internet Associations (FMAI), moderated the session and contextualised topics that the speakers would address. He reflected on the state of the global digital divide, poverty reduction, and the overall achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) fifteen years after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
Mr Abdelaziz Hilali, President, FMAI, summarised the status of digital development since WSIS. He affirmed that the gender digital divide in Africa appeared to have grown significantly over the past five years, and that young people exceeded their parents in the Internet usage with roughly 70% of the Internet users being between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Hilali elaborated on some impacts of the Internet on economic development, namely the sectors concerning education, medicine, banking and finance, and business.
Ms Rima Hleiss, Associate Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Lebanese University, addressed the impact that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the Internet had on achieving the SDGs. Regarding SDGs 4 and 5, Hleiss highlighted the empowerment of teachers and students in terms of leveraging the instructional content online and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and equalising effect of the Internet on women in order to be able to access the same information and opportunities than men have. She attested that women would be able to shape digital experiences in the Global South as they do in the developed world. Concerning SDGs 9, 11 and 12, Hleiss highlighted how innovations such as Uber provided solutions to the MENA transport issues, where 70% of this region’s population live in urban areas. As regards SDGs 3, 7 and 13, she gave examples of how ICTs supported the health sector and emphasised the importance of using ICTs in early warnings for disaster management.
Mr Charles Sha’ban, Executive Director, Abu-Ghazaleh Intellectual Property (AGIP), focused on digital development from the business, legal and user perspectives. For businesses, he said they should think of ICTs as an enabler and should be proactive in employing them strategically. For example, businesses should examine and compare their specific needs with the potential that artificial intelligence holds. Concerning legislation, Sha’ban outlined the importance for the MENA countries to make clear, predictable legislation and legal frameworks to support business activity. As for the Internet users/individuals, he emphasised that users in countries such as Jordan had the same opportunity as those in Europe or Japan because of the Internet. This opportunity allowed small companies and entrepreneurs to scale up their activities significantly.
Ms Wafa Ben-Hassine, MENA Policy Counsel, Access Now, stated that digital development within MENA was growing quickly despite the very diverse landscape from country to country. She noted an increasing number of digitised governments. Ben-Hassine highlighted that privacy existed for centuries in Arabic and Islamic culture but the translation of this concept into data protection law has been tricky. Tunisia has been at the forefront with organic privacy and data protection law since 2004. The said law has focused primarily on privacy and hence the current draft will tackle the interaction of privacy principles with other rights such as accessing public information and protecting personal data. With several global models to follow, Ben-Hassine emphasised that data protection should be seen as an enabler to businesses as opposed to a hindrance because of the advantages it offers to companies with international activities.
Mr Issa Mahasneh, President, Jordan Open Source Association, stated that most of Arab countries lacked legal frameworks to protect personal data, with the exceptions of Tunisia, Morocco, Qatar, Algeria, and Bahrain. Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE are currently drafting data protection laws. Mahasneh opined that not all privacy laws were created equally, and cited the implication for human rights that restricted the encryption tool use in the Moroccan law. He commended Morocco, Qatar, Algeria, and Bahrain for their special protections concerning sensitive data, including biometric data (Morocco and Algeria). He delved further into how biometric technologies affected human rights and the considerations to be explored in various scenarios.
In the question and answer segment, participants and speakers addressed the impetus for the development of digital laws, current data protection work at the regional level, cultural nuances, and the importance of public education.
By Kevon Swift