APRIL 2, 2012 | BY JILLIAN C. YORK
More than a year after the start of the "Arab Spring," large portions of the Middle East remain in upheaval. Even in the most stable of countries, press freedom--and by extension, online freedom--remains up for debate. We've highlighted the ongoing debate in Tunisia over online filtering, and have touched on new threats to bloggers in several countries. This week it is legislative proposals in both Iraq and Lebanon that have us on alert.
Iraq's Harsh Informatics Crime Law
All eyes are currently on Baghdad, where an Arab League Summit is taking place. But, as the Economist notes, "once the dignitaries and television cameras [have departed]," a broadly-worded bill that would severely punish thought crimes is due to come up in front of Iraq's Parliament. According to a translation from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Article 3 of the Act includes mandatory life sentences for using computers or the Internet to:
- "compromise" the "unity" of the state;
- "subscribe, participate, negotiate, promote, contract or deal with an enemy ... in order to destabilize security and public order or expose the country to danger";
- "damage, cause defects, or hinder [systems or networks] belonging to security military, or intelligence authorities with a deliberate intention to harm [state security]".
Under Articles 4 and 5 of the bill, life imprisonment is also imposed upon those who establish or manage a website with deliberate intent to:
- promote "ideas which are disruptive to public order";
- "implement terrorist operations under fake names or to facilitate communication with members or leaders of terrorist groups";
- "promote terrorist activites and ideologies or to publish information regarding the manufacturing, preparation and implementation of flammable or explosive devices, or any tools or materials used in the planning or execution of terrorist acts";
- facilitate or promote human trafficking "in any form";
- engage in "trafficking, promoting or facilitating the abuse of drugs".
Other articles of the Act aim to provide legal protection for the "legitimate use of computers and information networks" and to "punish the perpetrators of acts which violate the rights of users whether they may be individuals or legal entities." The more alarming elements of the Act include provisions to punish those who utilize information networks to "create chaos in order to weaken the trust of the electronic system of the state," "provoke or promote armed disobedience," "disturb public order or harm the reputation of the country," or "intrudes, annoys or calls computer and information network users without authorization or hinders their use." The penalties for these proposed crimes range from 3 months to life in prison.
There are also extreme penalties related to copyright--2-3 years imprisonment for publishing or copying "any scientific research work, literary, or intellectual properties which belong to someone else and is protected by international laws and agreements"--and hacking, punishing those who access "a private website of a company or institution with the intent to [change, modify, delete or unduly use it]."
Human rights group, Access, has issued an extensive report detailing the many troubling facets of the proposed Act, calling it "vague, broad, and overly harsh." We couldn't agree more: Iraq's new bill presents a grave threat to free expression and innovation. While the harsh, disproportionate sentences are most egregious, the overbroad wording of most of the articles would strip away protections for the press, whistleblowers, activists, and even ordinary citizens.
It is worth noting that while Iraq has placed restrictions on the press, there has been no previous evidence of website blocking, although reports have suggested that Iraqi authorities struck a deal in 2009 with a French company to implement a "security system" that would allow both surveillance and blocking of sites.
Part of the reason, perhaps, that Iraq is now cracking down is the low number of Internet users in the country: an estimated 2.5% of the total of population, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The number of people who access the Internet via mobile devices in Iraq is on the rise, however, with an estimated 33% of Iraqis getting news via their mobile device (that same survey states that 28% of Iraqis use the Internet for news).
Regardless of the true number of Internet users in Iraq, two things are certain: Iraqis are increasingly using the Internet and this proposed Act would severely limit their ability to do so. We echo Access in advising the Iraqi Parliament to conduct a proper human rights impact assessment of the Act and engage with civil society actors and technologists to revise the bill.
Lebanon's Internet Regulation Act Hurts Bloggers
Lebanon's press is among the most liberal in the Middle East. Though self-censorship is prevalent and the country's 1963 press law limits the number of press licenses issued for political publication, Lebanon's uncensored Internet has filled that void in many ways, allowing independent websites to offer a broader range of opinions than are available in print.
Now, the Lebanese Internet Regulation Act (LIRA) proposed by Lebanon's Minister of Information, M. Walid Daouk, threatens to disrupt online space. The Act would limit what bloggers and independent media sites (as well as ordinary citizens, and even politicians) can and cannot say online, as well as where they can express themselves.
The proposed law [text in Arabic, rough translation in English available here] would prohibit any publication by electronic means "affecting the morals and ethics" of Lebanon, as well as anything related to gambling. Furthermore, Article 4 of the law would require website owners to register with the Ministry of Information and report identifying information such as their name, address in Lebanon, and contact information. Article 4 would also place conditions on who can own a website, restricting those convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, as well as those who have legal immunity (which includes parliamentarians), and limit site owners to owning only one website.
Article 6 of the Act would bring websites within the purview of the existing Press Law 382/94, which was initially devised to authorize private audiovisual channels to operate in Lebanon. Article 7 would apply to the Internet existing laws that govern published and broadcast advertising. Furthermore, Article 8 would authorize the country's press court to handle all violations and legal disputes arising from electronic media work.
Lebanon's blogger community has been vocal about the proposed law, which would undoubtedly hinder their freedom of expression. One concern that has been raised again and again is what constitutes a website. With ever-increasing participation on social networks, will Lebanese who have pages on both Google Plus and Facebook be held liable for their "ownership" of them?
Using the hashtag #StopLIRA, Lebanese netizens have protested the bill. There is also a video explaining why LIRA is problematic and it calls on the global community to stand in solidarity against it. Additionally, Ontornet--an organization primarily concerned with the implementation of high-speed affordable Internet in Lebanon, but also involved in digital rights activism--conducted an interview with Minister Daouk regarding the Act, but concluded that the government has no plans to listen to the outcry against LIRA.
EFF supports the local opposition to LIRA and calls on the Lebanese Ministry of Information to consult with the country's online community in re-drafting the law.