Internet Freedom: Laws and Regulations In Iraq

25 August, 2016

The Internet is a precious, global resource that directly impacts our economic and social opportunities far into the future. Unfortunately, we are still novices at using this technology in Iraq, due to its recent appearance here, just after the 2003 war.

Under the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, Internet access was tightly controlled and very few people were thought to have online access. In 2002, just a year before the war, it was estimated that only 25,000 Iraqis used the Internet [source]. Since 2006, several companies have emerged to provide options to individual Iraqis that make Internet access more affordable. In 2009, the OpenNet Initiative found that there is no evidence of Internet filtering in Iraq in all four of the fields for which they test (political, social, conflict/security, and Internet tools). They also found that there is no evidence of any surveillance [source].
How is the Internet managed and provided to the Iraqi people?
Internet services are provided mainly via the State Company for Internet Services (SCIS), a company owned by the Ministry of Communications, and a few local ISPs using wireless technology. In 2009, the government started operating and maintaining the national fiber optic network and linking it with neighboring countries and the world through multiple terrestrial and submarine lines.
After all these developments and the rapid increase in Internet usage in Iraq, the Government of Iraq thought that it was time of declare a new law that manages Internet usage in the country. The Iraqi Council of Representatives (ICoR) has committees that are responsible for drafting laws to help the government to do their job easily. The committee of national security and defense, the committee of higher education and scientific research, the legal committee, the committee of culture and press, the committee of human rights, and the committee of services and construction suggested the first draft of the Iraqi Cyber-crime Law and are moving it forward.
What is the problem with this law?
The law mainly offers a legal basis to create restrictions on the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of access to information. Moreover, each article within the law serves several unrelated and poorly defined aims. Some of them don't have the legal support to restrict the right of freedom of expression, and others are too vague [Law Draft].
For example, Article (3) from the draft of the law restricts the use of computers in any way that affects the independence of the country, its unity, its integrity, and its safety, or any of its higher economic, political, social, and military interests. This gives the implementation of the law a very broad power that can be understood to control and monitor any type of digital expression seen to be necessary.
As another example, Article (21:3) imposes a fine of 10-30 million Iraqi dinars (roughly USD 8,000-25,000) against anyone who violates religious and moral values through the use of information networks and computers. Again, this restriction which based on a broad interpretation that can be used to target innocent and harmless groups who express themselves and which the state wants to prevent from organizing. The draft law erodes more rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of information, as well as fails to protect the rights of journalists to protect their sources. Practically, this would include any expression that aims to encourage a critical discussion of the system and it is an obvious move to limit the rights of Iraqi citizens to engage in political debate.
The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance are simple and clear. The second principle says that “Laws should only permit Communications Surveillance by specified State authorities to achieve a legitimate aim that corresponds to a predominantly important legal interest that is necessary in a democratic society. Any measure must not be applied in a manner that discriminates on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” [source]. None of these principles are included in the draft of the Iraqi Cyber-Crime Law.
The law had its first reading on July 27, 2012. The proposed legislation was analyzed by many international organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Article 19, both of whom found that it violates the international standards for freedom of speech. At the local level, Iraqi bloggers launched a Facebook campaign to oppose the draft. Their major concerns related to the vagueness of its provisions, the severity of punishments for violations, and that the government could use it to punish political criticism. In April 2012, the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), along with 60 international and local organizations, sent an open letter to the ICoR declaring their review to the draft law [source], on February 6, 2013 the ICoR revoked and cancelled the draft law due to the scale of both local and international objections.
The law was back to the table of the ICoR again in 2015, as a modified draft had its first reading on April 16, 2015 and passed to the second reading on August 1, 2015, when it passed to the final voting session on July 26, 2016. This was when INSM and many local and international organizations launched a Facebook campaign to oppose the law again. They again succeeded.
The Government of Iraq has a huge lack of communications technology expertise and ability. They are absolutely outdated, what makes them very weak against attacks from hackers inside and outside Iraq. Only in 2016, more than seven governmental websites were hacked. They have regained control over some, while others are still under the hackers’ control. The government's Facebook pages are not that much better. Many high-level government entities continue using public email providers such as Gmail or Yahoo. A government with this type of technology situation absolutely needs such a law to block the chances of Iraqi bloggers and activists to blog and disseminate their shortcomings and show it to the whole international community.
It is our deep belief that the Internet cannot be regulated in a top-down manner. Instead, governance should be based on processes that are inclusive and driven by consensus. The need to create a clear and simple way for everyone, regardless of background, to understand and be a part of how the Internet is run is critical.
Mr.Muhammed Munjed Hamid, Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM)