IGMENA Event: Human Rights on the Internet, What’s at Stake?  

On Wednesday, 29 June 2016, the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (HIVOS) organized a roundtable discussion in Amman, Jordan. Thirty participants from the wider Internet Governance (IG) and IGMENA community attended a regional policy discussion with partners, staff, and participants to think together on issues related to IG, human rights, access and infrastructure, and the promotion of policy practices on the ground. The event was entitled “Human Rights on the Internet, What’s at Stake?” The first session discussed Internet infrastructure, standards, and regulations and the second session discussed human rights, online freedoms, policies, and the challenges lying ahead.

Workshop 1: Internet Governance, Infrastructure, and Access

The first workshop was moderated by Ms. Ahlam Abu-Jadallah, Head of the National Domain Names Section at the National Information Technology Center (NITC). Ms. Abu-Jadallah kicked off a discussion on the situation of Internet calls and applications such as VoIP and OTT in Jordan, specifically the attempts made by the local community to stop the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission’s (TRC) intention to introduce taxation on the cost of Internet calls in Jordan. In the same vein, participants mentioned that there might be another reason behind this decision, which was originally made not only because of the financial loss suffered by the service providers (ISPs), but also as a new form of censorship imposed by the regulator on Internet usage, allegedly because of the surrounding political environment and high-level national security issues in the region.

Mr. Fahd Batayneh, Stakeholder Engagement Manager for the Middle East at ICANN, mentioned that there is an increase in Internet penetration and a rise in the adoption of smartphones, which has led to a decline in sending text messages and making voice calls, especially international voice calls. Participants in the roundtable discussion mentioned that there is a notable drop in international voice calls. According to the latest figures by the TRC, there are more than 6.3 million Internet users in Jordan and some 13 million active mobile subscriptions. Figures by the ICT Ministry indicate that smartphone penetration in Jordan exceeds 70 percent. The good news is that no charges will be imposed in Jordan on the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype and Viber.

Mr. Walid Al Khatib, Ph.D., of Yarmouk University, added that according to estimates by experts in the field, there are more than 3 million WhatsApp users in Jordan. Experts have repeatedly stressed that it is difficult and unrealistic to impose fees on such services, as there are technological solutions to bypass any blockage and many alternatives to these apps online. He mentioned that several social media activists have been leading online campaigns to protest against any plans to impose fees on such apps, after reports said the Kingdom's telecom companies were considering the move. Other participants added that by the end of 2015, there were 13.7 million mobile subscriptions in the Kingdom, in addition to 7.9 million Internet users, according to the TRC. One of the recommendations was built around a strong VoIP business model that, in order to survive, should rely on marketing research and strong communication of new services based on market demand, great customer service, and impeccable technical support.

Mrs. Rana Hourani, a lawyer and data protection specialist, talked about the recent blocking of some Internet applications and services during a specific period, such as high school exams, and their impact on citizens and users in general. This policy has been followed in more than one country, such as Iraq and Algeria, in addition to Jordan, to get a safe exam environment free of different methods of cheating. She approached the issue from a legal perspective, by pointing out that the policy is not effective and will have negative consequences on the climate of online freedoms in the long term. She added that the victims of blocking for some services or publications or legally pursued do not conflict with the Penal Code and the law of cybercrime, which was recently passed in Jordan. This situation can create negative prospects for the future of online freedoms and human rights.

In the same context, Mr. Batayneh agreed that blocking these services during the exam period was not the most optimal solution and that those involved had to look into other methods to solve the whole problem of cheating on high school exams. Suggestions of going back to the grassroots of this whole “horror show” is a good starting point.

Ms. Asma Salem, Systems Engineer at the National Information Technology Center, mentioned that Internet access is the most important element to achieve a technological revolution in Jordan. However, positive developments are occurring for both Jordan’s fixed and mobile broadband sectors in 2016. Jordan is trying to build and enhance Internet infrastructure and utilize services related to the Internet such as e-commerce, information connectivity, accessibility, etc.There is a fundamental need to deploy a sustainable infrastructure that supports the expansion of the Internet in all vital sectors. The current infrastructure must maintain its survival. In other words, it needs to expand, decentralize, and grow to cover poor rural areas. More importantly, it must emphasize security and the protection of end users’ private information, particularly with new waves of technological development such as the Internet of things (IoT). There still some restrictions to access websites during working hours in governmental institutions, which are quite different when using the Internet at home or in public places for free.

Mr. Alaa Al Radi, an IPv6 certified trainer, talked about IPv6 by claiming that it is much better than IPv4, which begs the question of why adoption hasn’t been more widespread. Mr. Al Radi mentioned that IPv4 addresses are a limited resource that is expected to be exhausted in the near future. IANA will exhaust this pool in less than a year, with the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) allocating all their remaining blocks back in January 2012. IPv6 is the next generation IP protocol, which will solve the address exhaustion problem. The discussion was then extrapolated to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Jordan, which need to take steps to ensure service continuity and transparency to customers at all times during transition and coexistence of the two protocols.

Other participants mentioned that ISPs in Jordan have managed to continue to provide new IPv4 addresses by reallocating some of the addresses they had assigned in the past but perhaps had never passed on to customers. This buys them a little more time while they scramble to roll out and support IPv6 addresses. All ISPs are faced with providing a migration path from IPv4 to IPv6 for all of their customers and they are currently working to ensure that the impact on their customers will be minimal. The reality is that most ISPs are saying that their customers will not be impacted by IPv4 address depletion “in the near term,” which makes it sound as if they might be affected somehow and in some way sooner or later.

Workshop 2: Internet Governance and Human Rights Policies

The second workshop was moderated by Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, IGMENA Lead Policy Analyst. Mrs. Rima Moquattach, Ph.D. English and Comparative Literature at the University of Jordan, took the lead in the discussion by discussing the importance of end users’ awareness and education on their rights and freedoms on the Internet. It should not be inconsistent with internationally recognized human rights standards.

In Jordan, websites are licensed, censored, or blocked. Mrs. Moquattach asked: What is the procedure for licensing? What are the criteria to get a license? Is it easy? Who is responsible for this? She stated that we need to educate students how to gain from the Internet knowledge and experiences. It is a fundamental human right to use and access the Internet to participate in chat rooms, share ideas and solutions, and learn about the many diverse cultures in the world. While the Internet does a lot for students, there are also benefits for parents, teachers, and policy makers.

Mr. Yousef Alsarairah, former Director of the Security Department at the NITC and PSD, added a perspective on cybercrime law and the criminalization of a variety of hacking and cyber-related crimes in Jordan. The law provides a legal base for dealing with a variety of credit card and electronic banking scams. As such, it provides the punishments to be imposed on anyone who illegally obtains information about credit cards or financial transactions without just cause, or uses the same to obtain a benefit for himself or another person. Moreover, the law provides that anyone who intentionally enters into a website or information system without the proper permits shall be punished by a fine and/or imprisonment. The penalty is increased with regards to any entry made (whether legally or illegally) with the intent to copy, delete, or in any other way alter the website itself, or any data it contains; or if the entry was made with the intent to impersonate the website’s owner.

Some participants expressed their concerns on the punitive aspect of the cybercrime law in Jordan, its relation to defamation of public figures, and the criminalization of hackers because they represent a threat to national security and the anti-terrorism law. But who set the legal boundaries, extra-legality, and applicability of legal sentences or conviction? Attendees also discussed some of the issues of defamation that have occurred recently that touched known public figures, as well the lack of clear interpretation of the law that defines prohibited and permitted free speech to express critical opinion toward decision-makers, despite the presence of competent judges, law specialists, and policy experts in cybersecurity and cybercrime.

Mr. Huthaifa Bustanji, Judicial Assistant in the Judicial Inspection Department of the Ministry of Justice, mentioned that the domain name system (DNS) has been developed in the recent years, but there are many concerns, and the system still constitutes a big challenge to stakeholders and decision makers in Jordan. The Jordanian constitution introduces human rights and freedom of expression, and leaves the door open for legal interpretation for determining the nature of practicing these rights. In this regard, neither the Jordanian National Information Technology Center nor the Jordanian legal system have clarified human rights on the Internet. Therefore, new laws shall include the right of privacy, data protection, net neutrality, and the right of freedom of expression.

Mr. Abed M. Khatib, from AlNajeh (NGO), mentioned that Jordan has a highly critical Internet censorship environment, especially after the so-called “Arab Uprising.” It came as a need to clamp down on young activists’ opinions and to avoid any kind of speeches that criticize the government or promote radical thoughts. Meanwhile, the government must identify and understand the difference between “hate speech” and “freedom of expression” in order to guarantee more freedom on the Internet without any governmental control.For example, the most known aspect of the Press and Publications Law is the requirement for Jordanian news websites to obtain a government license, or else face blocking by Internet Service Providers as a first step before legal procedures are taken to shut down the website’s operations. But this is only part of a bigger and more complex picture. According to the Press and Publications Law, the Director of the Jordanian Media Commission has the personal authority to decide which websites in Jordan qualify as news websites. Mr. Khatib stated that a certain “legal vagueness” is used to interpret what website is legitimate or illegitimate to operate when it comes to the internal or external affairs of the Kingdom.

Mr. Khatib believes that the Internet is a wide space where everyone has the right to post, share, and deal with content whatever the content is. The main challenge is to convince stakeholders, such as the ISPs and governments, that universal access should be allowed and limitations must not be applied. As an example, if you are connected to a Jordanian university’s Wi-Fi and searched for a term such as “sex genotype,” your access to this information will be denied because of the term “sex” in your search. The government, private sector, and education facilities share this limitation on Internet access, which is related to rights disclosure. And not only does the law require news websites to have a full-time Editor-In-Chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Association for at least four years, but membership in the association is not guaranteed, and a large number of professional journalists in Jordan do not meet the membership requirements.

Mr. Batayneh stated that he believes a user can define his/her own levels of privacy. He brought up the example of posting on social media and the concept of sharing without consent from the original poster of a picture or content. Who is to be blamed here when privacy is infringed? He also brought up the notion of “posting diplomatically,” where bloggers who want to post content criticizing someone or something can stay away from “pointing fingers directly” and phrasing things in a diplomatic manner. This can keep many away from any possible trouble. Finally, he spoke about surveillance and privacy. He did mention that while privacy is important, can lack surveillance keep us safe from the likes of ISIL and all the conspiracies happening around us? Do we want to live safely, or do we want to live freely?

Mr. Hamza Salem, Computer Engineer, Developer, and Audio blogger, talked about how free speech became a serious issue when the concept shifted to the Internet. “Everything is documented, collected, stored, and sold.” This is the most complex thing in the relationship between free speech and documented speech on the Internet. There is a gap between the technology and the law because policies and laws related to broadcasting (websites, radio, etc.) are vaguely and ambiguously defined, maybe intentionally by the lawyers and jurists who work in this field.

Terms and conditions are too complex and push the end users to ignore reading and understanding complex technical and legal clauses. Moreover, the terms and conditions of the Internet governance of big companies (like Google) are not well defined. There is a corporate responsibility, government responsibility, end user responsibility to talk about complex topics (deep web, ethical algorithms…) to make new flexible rules, create easy-to-understand terms of service to avoid government censorship, metadata collection, and corporate censorship that transcends national laws.

Finally, participants discussed tools used to bypass blocked sites as well as circumvention methods such as VPNs and ToR. One for the fundamental recommendations of the meeting was that technology users need to be aware that not everyone has the same opportunities when it comes to technology and the understanding of the need for online security. Working toward equal digital rights and supporting electronic access is the starting point of “digital citizenship” in Jordan.Digital exclusion makes it difficult to grow as a society when some people are increasingly using these tools. Helping to provide and expand access to technology, not only in Jordan but in the MENA region as a whole, should be a goal of all digital citizens. End users in Jordan need to keep in mind that there are some that may have limited access, so other resources may need to be provided. To become productive citizens, we need to be committed to making sure that no one is denied human rights on the Internet; this is what is at stake.
HIVOS Policy Roundtable summarized and edited by
Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, Policy Analyst Lead (IGMENA)