The quest for an open Internet in the Middle East and Northern Africa  

Executive Summary

Many have often criticised attempts by traditional governing bodies to regulate the Internet. They believe that any regulation goes against the openness philosophy of the Internet. However, whilst the Internet is not under the responsibility of any official government, it can be governed by the social norms of its users, as well as by national governments in a more explicit manner.  These social norms to which the users are subject, can be influenced by national legislation or procedures, and also by cultural and economic trends which indirectly shape Internet users’ choices and patterns online.

The ongoing unrest in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region has opened up new debates on the Internet’s openness and the role it plays in development and democracy. The report strives to analyze the current state of Internet openness in six countries; Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Syria – from hand selected experts in the field. The reports contextualise each country’s experience of anchoring and safeguarding Internet openness, including policies and measures which permit Internet users to make their own choices about which lawful Internet services and content they wish to access, create or share online.

Whilst the report considers the prospects of openness in the six selected countries in the same region, it finds that they are very mixed in positions: despite the fact that Tunisia, at one end, is on track to achieve positive political reform which has been an enabler to Internet openness in the country, Syria is experiencing profound internal division and conflict which has fuelled the current regime to further limit Internet access to its citizens. In Egypt, which epitomizes many regional trends, protection of Internet openness has been limited due to the Islamist movement taking control following the fall of the former Hosni Mubarak regime. Jordan has found some reform encouraged by the regime’s necessity to boost economic growth, although red-lines seem to creep behind citizens using the Internet. In Iraq, the overthrow of the dictator Saddam Hessian’s regime in 2003 was a milestone, but has since led to chaos and the inevitable limiting of Internet openness amidst fear of further public disturbance. Finally the Iranian regime’s apprehension of toppling like some of its neighbours has resulted in paralyzing authoritarian policies which limit citizens’ Internet use for social and economic development.

Preface

The emergence of the Internet into our daily lives has radically altered the consumption, production and distribution of information, and has already played an influential role in shaping political systems. Knowing no traditional geographic, legal or political boundary, the Internet has largely shaped its own culture and its complex reality challenges traditional perspectives on the role of governments and the importance of boundaries and sovereignty. However, Internet governance mechanisms should be based on the principle of openness, encompassing tolerance and freedom of expression. These mechanisms, together with unilateral policymaking could potentially hinder the free flow of information on the Internet.

The ongoing uprisings in the MENA have unsettled the political dust in what is already a very fragile region. As an enabler of human rights, the Internet has helped mobilise social movements to impact on and improve political surroundings in ways which had not previously been possible. Although some downplay the significance of the Internet in the ongoing revolutions, there is no doubt regarding its paramount role in facilitating the sharing of information and of mobilising people on the ground during the height of the uprisings.

Tunisia and Egypt saw first-hand how such ability to share information online proved vital to their revolutions and how the Internet contributed to the downfall of the governments of both countries. However, this was not the case in Iran where the regime’s fear of Internet technology has led to a hard-line policy on Internet technology and to further social and political depravation.

Because freedom of expression and the free flow of information and knowledge are essential to democratic societies, the focus of this publication is on helping to advance human rights and democracy. It compiles the experiences of six politically fragile countries from across the MENA region – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Syria – in reports from selected experts in the field. These experts have collected, analysed and synthesised up-to-date data from a variety of sources including domestic and international human rights organisations, governmental sources, non-governmental organisations and members of civil society in their respective countries. Once the reports had been drafted, they were rigorously edited, reviewed, and fact-checked so as to ensure accuracy and objectivity.

This method contextualises each country’s experience of anchoring and safeguarding Internet openness. In the context of this report, Internet openness consists of the policies and measures which permit Internet users to make their own choices about which lawful Internet services and content they wish to access, create or share online. Whilst at first glance the six reports appear to be similar, their contexts and analyses are diverse and each has a different implication for social mobilisation using the Internet. The present article will explore these issues in detail.

The breakdown

Each country’s report is loosely structured around two sections. The first is focused on Internet openness at the local level. Each expert highlights how freedom of expression is understood in their national socio-political context and the legal provisions which limit or regulate freedom of expression in that country. They then address issues including freedom of speech on the Internet in their country, challenges and limitations to that freedom of speech, access to information, how much transparency and accountability is reflected in the policy-making process and beyond. The experts also assess whether or not, and to what extent, e-participation plays a role in political activity, together with the impact of social media on civil liberties, and Internet governance issues unique to their country.

The second section analyses the role of civil society. This includes identifying local and regional civil society networks involved in Internet governance, their role in the policy-making processes, the extent to which they influence local Internet policy and the extent to which online communication is secure. This section also identifies different governmental bodies and businesses involved in Internet legislation and governance.
 
The policy-making process

Whilst the reports do not consider physical access to technology, the legal, policy and regulatory frameworks are explored in detail in order to identify issues surrounding the safeguarding of Internet openness. National-level Internet governance varies between states, most notably with respect to the roles of government, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders in both policy-making and governance. In some countries, Internet management at national level is in the hands of governments and regulators, whilst other countries allow private and non-for-profit sector involvement together with other stakeholders.

Although still fairly small, awareness is growing amongst regional civil societies regarding how to influence national Internet policy, and pressure on MENA governments to adopt progressive legal mechanisms continues to strengthen. Five of these six reports indicate that the policy-making and legislative process and environment do not take a multi-stakeholder approach and do not engage civil society.  This has a knock-on effect on the safeguarding of Internet openness. Whilst Tunisia is an exception, it is nonetheless in the early stages of developing a multi-stakeholder policy-forming process and still has some distance to go with regard to increased inclusion.

Common landscape

A consistent feature of all six reports is the lack of transparency in governmental administrative procedures, even when ICT facilities and infrastructures are available. This translates into a lack of a coherent ICT socio-political vision, which inevitably encourages arbitrary ICT policy environments.

Another common theme is the way in which lack of transparency in facilitating access to governmental and economic decisions has excluded citizens from taking part. This said, all six states have rolled out e-government programmes, some of which have been more effective than others.

An additional challenge facing online communities and activists relates to the violation of individual privacy and legal threats based on online activity. Consequently, another universal theme is the ambiguity and vaguely-worded nature of Internet legislation. Such laws prompt citizens to self-censor content in the fear of detention on unclear grounds. The Jordanian report highlights cases where this has hindered Internet openness.

The fact that the Internet does not adhere to geopolitical boundaries poses a serious obstacle to governments seeking its over-regulation, and this in turn poses a threat to Internet openness. A core principle of the Internet is that it should be free and universal, thus meaning that over-regulation cannot be a good thing.

Restrictive content

Internet content censorship is common in the MENA region. However, governments have not been able to silence activists and human rights advocates because of the technical evolution of online platforms and applications. Despite this, governments have employed innovative tactics to censor and restrict access to content. These have included slowing bandwidth speeds and limiting the ability of users to upload or download content such as videos or images. With the exception of Tunisia which has transitioned from filtered to unrestricted Internet, the six countries in this publication have limited Internet access through physical and technical infrastructures.

Whilst most of these governments aim to restrict access to content, these six countries have developed a range of approaches to Internet regulation and have been met with varying degrees of success, sometimes with unintended consequences.

Challenges facing activists

International companies have provided technical surveillance and monitoring systems to the governments of all six countries. Such systems enable national security apparatuses to violate privacy and monitor Internet activities without consent and due diligence. In so doing, these European and North American companies have assisted the governments in detaining political activists and human rights defenders. This interrupts the work of civil societies and activists towards securing human rights in their respective countries.