How a total Internet shutdown is likely to happen in Egypt: Death of Privacy and the Right to Access  

21 April 2017

Amidst the heat of the January 2011 revolution in Egypt, a total Internet and mobile network shutdown was imposed for 3 days. The regime thought at the time that this is an effective measure to inhibit increased resentment and mobilization against the Mubarak regime. The shutdown was viewed as a strategic choice to cut off the source of Egyptians' awareness and solidarity platforms. Lessons learned from the revolution are: private ISPs will not counter state-imposed ultimatums and the increasing credence of online social media platforms as the new arena for mobilization, alternative for physical assembly and free expression of counter-narratives, identity or interests. Curtailment on the Internet in Egypt has gravitated in light of different shifts in the political leadership which remained heavily securitised, restrictive and monitored the Internet.

Egyptian members of parliament have made statements and proposals which were met by excessive ‘mockery’ due to the unsound grounds for such proposals. These are particularly the recent proposals to impose a monthly fee to access Facebook and to only enable log-in to users’ Facebook accounts after they register their national identification card number. As radical and unsound these proposals are, this is not the first instance in which such propositions were promulgated.   

A year ago, in April 2016, a Member of Parliament Essam Farouk, proposed to vote on a bill which allows legislation to force Egyptian Internet users to log-in to their Facebook and Twitter accounts using their national identification number. Two other members of parliament, one of them is Ahmed Al-Sherif who publicized the soundness of this proposal to media outlets, articulated the threat emanating from anonymity in regards to holding those who commit cyber-crimes accountable. Not only are those users targeted in particular but the actual intent behind this legislation is to put ‘pages’ and ‘groups’ under the radar. It is feeble to argue that such legislation is not an attempt to control the rights of internet users, most notably the right of expression and assembly, as these groups and pages are the online alternatives to the very restricted physical realm where the aforementioned rights are absolutely denied.

In experimenting associating access to online services with the national identification card, the Egyptian government has tested such under its project: the Egyptian Knowledge Bank. Although in principle the project is a very promising and efficient tool to enable access to world-class knowledge databases, the information required for registration are invasive. Not only that accessing the portal with an Egypt IP would do, registration requires your name as shown on your ID card and the number of your ID card. The last count of registered users to the portal is 5000 users which do not compute given the development opportunity conclusive to using the portal. Such low count reflects the lack of trust and the threat users realize they face in providing such information to government agencies.

Previous criticism of different Internet Governance legislation and action plans was essential to the unconstitutional and unilateral decision-making process. An example of this is a proposed cybercrime bill and the cyber crime department which operated under the mandates of the Ministry of Interior without any clear and publicly announced measures or procedures.  As a result, there are various attempts to cover these shortcomings and escape criticisms to pass regulations which come from the parliament. 

This leeway for authoritarian Internet governance does not mask the fact that unlawful regulation and governance has been in place since the establishment of a police department without a parliamentary bill to be in charge of filing and collecting evidence pertaining to cases related to online activities.  As this proposition was faced with resentment and mockery by users as no government can be in control of the internet and the whole ability of users to register and log-in to their social media accounts, the proposal was sidelined until it resurfaced a couple of days ago.

Remarkably, a grace period spanned from January to March 2017 during which we witnessed lifting block on an opposition news outlet, namely, as the website was blocked again in March 2017. This is when particularly Egyptians users are experiencing increasing restrictions on their ability to fully utilize the Internet towards their different ends. Content-blocking, VOIP-blocking, and pressure to associate services with national identification numbers threaten users' right to privacy.

The resurgence for the proposal of forcing users to use their national identification numbers to access their social media platforms is, again, justified in enabling fair prosecution of those who commit cyber-crimes. Ironically, the MP who publicized this proposal in April 2017 claims that the Egyptian public law does not specify articles dealing with the prosecution of cyber-crimes. The MP is clearly unaware of previously debated Internet Governance issues in the parliament as a cyber-crime bill was on its way in May 2015. Other accounts on the rationale behind developing this legislation as mentioned on prostate news outlets express the necessity for such a measure in order to combat radicalisation and terrorism. The grounds for radicalization and the tendency to use violence emerge from increased restriction on rights rather than the openness of the Internet.

These developments cannot be analyzed divorced from the reports on purchased surveillance software from different companies in 2014 and 2015.  Heavy surveillance and intelligence do not suffice to cement the power of the current regime. In fact, the main threat lies in its inability to prosecute and thus set an example by prosecuting users allegedly committing cyber-crimes which at the moment are not well-established by a publicized body of laws and regulations.

This threat is particularly further augmented as TE-DATA, state-owned ISP, remains the most dominant ISP nationally, holding a wealth of personal information on each user that threatens them if a legislation to tie access to websites with users’ national identification card number passes.  The escalation in the political battle for legitimacy emanating from the Internet is highly likely to lead to a scenario similar to the 3 days shutdown of 2011. Therefore, the most effective way to counter increasing restrictions on the internet is solidly articulate the mandates of the Human Rights Council Resolution (A/HRC/32/L.20) and in stressing the importance of privacy to freedom of expression and keeping the Internet open to users.

Nardine El Nemr