The internet in the Middle East The Arab Spring’s online backlash
Mar 29th 2012, by G.L. | NEW YORK
A BILL on “information-technology crimes” with extraordinarily broad wording and harsh punishments is due to come before Iraq’s parliament in April, once the dignitaries and television cameras at this week’s Arab League summit in Baghdad have departed.
The bill is one of four proposed laws that could severely restrict basic freedoms. (A fifth,on journalists, was passed last summer.) Access Now, a human-rights group with a focus on technology, has a report on it out today. According to an English translation from last August, it includes mandatory life sentences for using computers or the internet to “compromise” the “unity” of the state (Article 3), promote “ideas which are disruptive to public order” (Article 4), or engage in “trafficking, promoting or facilitating the abuse of drugs” (Article 5), which could include merely blogging about them.
Some of the most egregiously loose definitions make it a crime—though at least not one carrying a life sentence—to cause “damage, defect or obstruction to computer hardware, operating systems, software or information networks”, even by mistake; to “intrude, annoy or call computer and information network users without authorisation”; to “benefit unduly from telecommunications services” (all these from Article 14); or to “relate words, images or voices to someone else involving cursing or slander” (Article 22).
The law on journalists and the other three bills, which cover public assembly, telecoms and political parties, are similar in style, notes a report from the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), another human-rights group: filled with vague references to “public morals”, “public order”, “national interests”, “threatening” or “insulting” messages, and so on.
Several governments tried temporarily restricting or shutting off the internet during the Arab Spring, and it should be no surprise that they are now looking for more permanent ways to limit its influence. Yet these stem from more than a simple desire to repress.
The problem, says Katherine Maher of Access Now, is that across the Arab world, leaders are “looking around and realising that an entire industry has emerged in the last 10-15 years that has largely evaded any type of regulatory oversight.” Laws are sorely needed to cover such things as identity theft, e-commerce, data security and intellectual-property protection, not to mention the media and free speech. So Iraq’s internet law contains some good points. But the rush to catch up, combined with official nerves rattled by the Arab Spring (or, in Iraq’s case, its sectarian conflict), has produced a swathe of bad legislation.
Lebanon’s government is considering an internet law that, says Ms Maher, is similar to Iraq’s in breadth, if not in harshness. The Tunisian Internet Authority—now something of a defender of online freedom, after having been a key tool of repression for the deposed former president—is still fighting a court ruling last year ordering it to censor the web for pornography. Egypt’s telecoms ministry is working on plans to do the same.
And in various countries, online journalists and activists continue to be jailed, beaten or killed for expressing views that are unpopular with either the government or the religious authorities. Iraq’s law on journalists includes provisions that are supposed to protect them, but these are “simply too vague to be of practical use”, according to the CLD report.
The one bright spot in the picture is Libya, says Courtney Radsch of Freedom House, a group that promotes freedom and democracy around the world. In the north African country, which she has just visited, the thorough disintegration of the old regime has allowed people who believe in an untrammeled internet to get into top jobs. Elsewhere, the revolution has been far less complete.