By Courtney Trenwith
In the wake of the government surveillance scandal that has rocked America, Arabian Business reviews the implications of internet freedom for the MENA region
Whether it came as a surprise or not, much of the world was horrified to learn last month that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on internet users and collecting their data in a massive clandestine electronic surveillance programme known as PRISM. It had remained a secret for six years until it was leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was forced to flee the US and is now struggling to find asylum.
The programme is believed to be the most comprehensive — and invasive — collection of online data and at least one NSA report showed PRISM was “the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports”. A colour-coded map released at the same time highlights the international spread of the surveillance, with Jordan and Egypt particularly standing out as hotspots for government web scrutiny in the Middle East.
But the internet has long been a controversial talking point in the Middle East and North Africa, from access, to government censorship and surveillance and the jailing of those who dare speak their minds online in a manner deemed offensive to local authorities.
Government attempts to control the technology seem to have heightened since social media played such a dominant role in the so-called Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, helping to bring together like-minded opponents. Governments and ruling families that managed to avoid the domino effect, which started in Tunis in January 2011, witnessed the power of social media and the internet and in many cases have clamped down on it in their own countries.
Scores of MENA residents are in jail for comments posted on websites such as Twitter and Facebook, or on personal blogs. Last month, it was revealed Saudi Arabia had sentenced seven government critics to jail time ranging from five to ten years for inciting protests using social media website Facebook. All of the men were from the Eastern Province, which is home to many of the kingdom’s Shia majority and where there has been recent unrest.
Human Rights Watch claimed the case had not implicated the men in directly taking part in protests and the court had failed to investigate allegations of confessions obtained via torture.
“Sending people off to years in prison for peaceful Facebook posts sends a strong message that there’s no safe way to speak out in Saudi Arabia, even on online social networks,” Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Joe Stork says.
Also in June, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Huda Al Ajmi, a 37-year-old teacher, to eleven years in jail for insulting the Emir, inciting regime change and insulting a religious sect via Twitter, according to sources close to the case. She is believed to be the first female to be convicted for such crimes.
In one of the most high-profile cases, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who hosts the weekly prime time programme El Bernameg (The Show), was detained in March for making fun of then-president Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
There also has been a string of similar convictions in Bahrain, while Saudia Arabia's conservative leaders have threatened to shut down or censor sites such as Twitter and WhatsApp on the basis that they are tools to stir social unrest and inspire immoral discussions.
Ironically, in Tunisia, the tiny North African country credited with sparking the Arab Spring, internet censorship no longer exists, according to the most high-profile free internet campaigners. Internet censorship under former dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was a major factor in inspiring the uprising that led to Ben Ali fleeing on 14 January 2011.
According to reports, under Ben Ali’s repressive regime, Tunisia had the world's most advanced internet censorship technology, rivalling China and North Korea. A cyber war ensued prior to and during dissent breaking out on the streets, with underground bloggers circulating news and video of the protests, while the authorities used sophisticated counter-technology to hack into social media accounts, steal codes and shut down pages.
Slim Amamou, the CEO of web development company Alixsys, was jailed in 2010 for organising a street protest against internet censorship and was later tortured for his role in the cyber war. Following the revolution he accepted the position of Minister of Sport and Youth, only to quit shortly after in protest at the transitional government’s reintroduction of internet censorship.
But, he tells Arabian Business, the veil has since been lifted and Tunisia enjoys arguably the most open internet in the MENA region. Indeed, the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), which was initially established under Ben Ali’s regime, has been transformed into an agency to encourage what Amamou terms “neutral internet” — that is, without restrictions.
“[Having a neutral internet] is of the utmost importance because the problem with censorship on the internet especially is that you have someone who dictates what is censored and not,” Amamou says.
“During the Ben Ali era we had cooking blogs that were censored because [his regime] decided they were hiding messages. [Using censorship] you can only create a big bubble that will eventually explode. That’s what happened in Tunisia.
“[But] there’s a noticeable progress. Obviously, the progress is post-revolution.”
But that doesn’t make the internet entirely free and open.
A day before Arabian Business spoke to Amamou, a Tunisian rapper was sentenced to two years in jail for writing a song that called for police to be “slaughtered”. The sentence was reduced to six months suspended upon appeal.
Amamou, who also is the Pirate Party founder, says the new government has simply changed tack in how it deals with the internet.
“We have an internet which is free [but] we have a government which is using that to put people who are speaking against [the government] in jail. So now we have the other situation,” he says. “[The population] is frustrated all over again.”
Free internet campaigners in several Arab states claim their governments are spying on their online activities and at times sending threats in an attempt to avoid Arab Spring-style uprisings.
Jordanian digital educator Reem Al Masri says the Jordanian government has increased its surveillance of online activities and the recently revealed details about PRISM highlighted the kingdom as a highly monitored country.
“We don’t know where the data’s going,” she says at a recent MENA Freedom Online conference. “We know we’re speaking to a third party because we’re being surveilled [sic]... so we try not to cross the red lines in order not to be arrested or taken into questioning. So we're adapting to the culture of surveillance.”
Zineb Belmkaddem, from Moroccan democracy activist group Mamfakinch, claims she received a direct threat in an anonymous message sent to her Twitter account that contained information that could only have been obtained by monitoring her private communication.
“I received these ‘@ mentions’ on Twitter from newly created accounts that were anonymous that would suggest that they knew some of my private information,” Belmkaddem says. “It was just a very subtle threat. Some of these are very aggressive and they take a toll on some of the activists.”
Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia, who also claims his online activities are being monitored by the government, says the public needs to be better informed on the purposes of surveillance and how they can avoid it.
“We need to try to educate people about choosing all kinds of alternative platforms that try to provide technological solutions for surveillance,” he says. “It’s a big dream [to] build a new platform that will compete with Google, that will compete with Facebook. I think that’s what the [online freedom] movement in the world should foster.”
Internet powerhouses Facebook and Google have come under fire for facilitating government requests for details about users’ online activities. The companies argue they are bound by law to respond to the demands and insist each request is stringently assessed by lawyers.
Facebook’s head of public policy in the region, Richard Allan, believes privacy advocates unfairly target companies.
“The government decides [whether access to users’ data is legal], the company doesn’t and we should accept that,” he says during the Freedom Online conference. “We should change our governments, frankly, if they’re not giving us the laws we want.”
Allan defends giving users’ data to state security organisations to “protect” the public from terrorism, arguing there is a balance between privacy and security.
“Ultimately it’s a political decision that says ‘we’re not going to give you people in security all you want, and accept that some people may get killed from that’,” he says. “That’s the reality, that’s what they’re saying to ministers, ‘that if you do not give me this data, people will die’, and that’s true.
“They won’t catch as many bad guys as they would otherwise but we all feel a little but freer. The security people are not evil but they have to do their job; their job description says ‘protect us’, their job description does not say ‘worry about privacy’.”
But Eleanor Saitta, principal security engineer at anti-surveillance organisation Open Internet Tools Project, based in New York, argues surveillance, particularly covert, is an abuse of human rights and there is no evidence to prove that it enhances the wellbeing of citizens.
“The role of the state is not to protect their security; it’s to protect the well-being of the people,” Saitta says. “Security is only one aspect of well-being and the other aspects of well-being are being steamrolled [because of government use of] surveillance.
“It’s an acceptable cost for some terrorism attacks to succeed; there is an acceptable cost for there to be some crime. States must accept that... because freedom is more important and freedom means some risks.”
Google is attempting to win back some public kudos by publishing a semi-annual report listing the number of requests it receives from each government authority and whether it agreed to provide the information.
The global head of Google’s Freedom Expression project, Ross LaJeunesse, argues the company has to obey the law but that it attempts to be transparent over its dealings with governments. He says governments worldwide tend to have a dated approach to the internet.
“Governments are taking the approach of old world media [telephones], which they’re very accustomed to controlling,” he tells Arabian Business. “They're trying to apply those rules and laws to the internet and it really doesn’t work. All it does is increase the pressure on people.”
He says while human rights are at the heart of the concern over internet freedom, when dealing with some governments, including in MENA, privacy activists and companies had to take a different tack — usually economical.
“In some parts of the world, the human rights argument doesn’t get you very far,” he says. “You don’t shy away from the truth but you focus on the economic development. You can’t have economic development while you stifle free speech."
“I see freedom of expression as a release valve: people have those thoughts, people have those concerns, they want to articulate them and when a government takes an approach [such as jailing dissidents], what you’re really doing is forcing those concerns and debate internally, it doesn’t go away. So in many ways, letting people articulate them and debate them and have conversations about them is very healthy for society.”
But for many MENA residents simply getting online is the first step. The region has one of the lowest internet usage rates in the world, at about 38 percent, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency. There also is a significant lack of original Arabic content, even further restricting the less educated.
Google recently revealed it is working on Project Loon, an experiment that could provide internet access to remote areas via a hot air balloon, which would hover at twice the altitude of a commercial aircraft. Thirty such balloons have been launched over New Zealand’s South Island as part of the first trial.
LaJeunesse says, if successful, Project Loon could have great implications for the MENA region.
“The access issues in the Middle East and New Zealand, in some ways, are similar because you have very dispersed populations in vast areas,” he says. “It’s not economical for the normal telco providers to run lines out there because they're never going to make their economic return on that, so that’s why you need to get innovative technologies.”