21 December 2011
In the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, Iraq has struggled to rebuild infrastructure critical to providing citizens basic tools for economic, political, and social justice and prosperity.
Among the government’s main initiatives is increasing access to the internet and other channels of communication. One of the biggest challenges thus far has been expanding physical connections, in a country characterized by irregular electricity, insecurity, and distributed cities. Satellite and mobile data have been critical to efforts to increase internet penetration to more than 2% of the population, currently the worst in the Arab world.
Despite these efforts, the quality of access in Iraq--the future of uncensored and unmonitored communications--seems under threat.
Iraq lacks significant regulation for the protection of digital rights and freedom. As a result, citizens are subject to discretionary policies set by private companies operating in the ICT sector. Some of these policies lack basic guarantees, such as the protection of personal information and user data. Some companies operate under practices that permit the disclosure of personal data without user consent when the property of the company is at risk. Without policy standards for determining data disclosure thresholds, and in the absence of legal frameworks for customer recourse, user rights and personal information are subject to arbitrary operating practices and lack the most basic protections.
The lack of a legal framework for digital rights is only one of the challenges to free speech within Iraq. The Iraqi government’s failure to implement rights-respecting legislation is exacerbated by a pervasive disinclination for defending the physical safety of journalists and bloggers. Security forces regularly threaten and abuse bloggers, and violence and assassinations targeting local journalists often remain unsolved. In the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the threat of legal action is often are used to silence editors, undermining the ability of the media from performing its crucial investigatory and informative mission.
The Iraqi government is seeking to redress some of the most glaring gaps in the legal code related to telecommunications, and is in the process of drafting a broad set of legislation addressing issues from internet governance to cyber-crime. However, although the introduction of any legal framework is a positive development, Iraqis have little to celebrate about the substance of the legislation. Much of the legislation under debate before Parliament undermines critical digital rights in favor of security and political stability.
Iraqi legislators are drawing heavily from the model in neighboring Iran for the development of legislation, including the Cyber Crimes Law, the Freedom of Expression and Association Law, the Journalist's Rights Law and the anticipated Iraqi Media Corporation Law. On December 17th, UNESCO, in partnership with the Iraqi parliamentary Human Rights Committee, organized an event titled 'Freedom of Expression is a Human Right," which requested an audit of this pending legislation through the perspective of Iraq’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Ongoing power struggles among the private sector, the Ministry of Communications, and national regulatory bodies consume resources that might otherwise be applied to good governance of digital resources. A battle for control of the Iraqi top-level domain, .iq, has frustrated working relations among critical government counterparts. As the Ministry seeks to issue a fourth mobile network operator license directly to the state-owned Iraqi Telecommunications and Post Company through an uncompetitive bid, the public has been shut out of closed-door negotiations.
Recent reports indicate that Iraq may have purchased surveillance equipment from Iran, along with Iraq’s reported role in facilitating the illegal transfer of sanctioned surveillance technology to Syria, are ominous indicators. Iraq’s civil society and its commitment to free speech are fragile, beset by numerous challenges off and online. If the lessons of neighboring Syria and Iran are instructive, these technologies may ultimately be used to persecute activists and dissidents. It is critical that Iraqi civil society--with the help of the international community--be empowered to stand guard against the erosion of digital liberties for all Iraqis.