Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression

Occasionally by Decree.. Update on the Block of Websites in Egypt

Report prepared by Hassan Elazhary and Mohamed El Taher with the participation of website monitor, Sarah Mohsen


The list of blocked websites can be found via this link


Introduction

Since the beginning of the large-scale block of websites by Egyptian authorities by the end of May 2017, no official information or announcement of the block decision has been made public or to the owners of the websites and the public about the reason for the block of their websites, except for statements made by officials of related government agencies such as the Journalists Syndicate, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, and a report published in Al-Masry Al-Youm based on a report issued by a sovereign authority that reviews experiences of blocking websites in other countries, and a news report quoted by the Middle East News Agency.

AFTE had published a report titled “Decision from an anonymous body on the blocking of websites in Egypt“. The report monitored the websites blocked by Egyptian authorities and the possible legal foundations of the undeclared block decision. The report also periodically updated the list of blocked websites.

AFTE continued to monitor the websites that the authorities have blocked since May 2017 until now. The number of websites increased from 21 to 496, which were temporarily or permanently blocked From 24 May 2017 until 1 February 2018. AFTE also used legal channels to find out the legal basis for the block decision, and follow up legal proceedings taken in this regard.

This report presents the information available to the organization from the case files before the Egyptian courts, in addition to information we received through daily monitoring of the blocking of sites on the networks of four Internet service providers in Egypt. The report reviews the following aspects of the situation:

  • Review of three lawsuits filed to the Egyptian administrative court

  • The issuance of a decision to block 33 websites by the committee for the freezing and management of Brotherhood assets

  • Block of hundred of websites without known legal grounds

  • Role of the national telecommunication regulatory authority in communicating with internet service providers to implement the block decisions.

  • Role of the ministry of communication and information technology addressing the national telecommunication regulatory authority to implement the block decisions

  • Monitoring and update of blocked websites and related available information

For information in this report, AFTE depended on:

  • Lawsuit no. 52474/71J filed by AFTE, against the Minister of Communications and the Chairman of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in their official capacity, demanding the suspension of the implementation of the negative decision by the administrative authority to refrain from formally clarifying the decision to block a number of websites, as well as obliging the relevant administrative authority to clarify the administrative and technical reasons that led to the block of websites, obliging telecommunications service providers to remove technical obstacles to enable users to access the websites mentioned in the petition (MADA, Almesreyoon, Albadil, Albedaya, Masr El Arabeya, Borsa, Daily News; and at a later time the tor project was also blocked, not a news site, as well as Nabd news application)

  • Lawsuit non 51294/71J filed by Mada, one of the websites that were blocked on 24 May 2017, against the Minister of Communications and the Chairman of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in their official capacity, demanding urgent suspension of the implementation of the negative decision by the administrative authority refraining from providing the appellant with an official copy of the decree to block the site, in case such a decree exists, and obliging telecommunications service providers to clarify the administrative and technical reasons for the block as well as obliging it to remove any technical obstacles to enable users and company owners to access the website.

  • Lawsuit no. 50624/71J filed by Elshark satellite channel, against the prime minister, the minister of interior and later the Chairman of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, in their official capacity, demanding an urgent cancellation of the decision to block Elshark channel and reinstating its broadcast.

  • Daily monitor of the blocked websites and documentation of their numbers over the four communication companies providing internet service for Egyptians; these are Tedata, Vodafone, Etisalat, and Orange

National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority denies responsibility for the block

AFTE and the Mada website demanded that the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the Ministry of Communications stop the implementation of the negative decision by the administrative body1 refusing to officially explain the decision to block a number of websites in case such a decision exists, as well as obliging the administrative body to disclose the administrative and technical reasons that led to the blocking of websites, in the absence of a decision. They also demanded that communications service providers be required to remove technical obstacles to enable users to access the site.

The Administrative Court of Justice began processing the cases in September 2017. The two cases are still ongoing as of the writing of this report. During this period, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) submitted responses to the two memos presented by the appellants. There was no fundamental difference in the arguments on which the NTRA relied.

On the other hand, Al-Sharq’s lawsuit was filed against the Minister of Interior and the Prime Minister in their official capacity and demanded that the court stop the decision to block Al-Sharq channel and some other websites. Subsequently, NTRA was added to the case of Al-Sharq channel after the State Council2 acknowledged that the authority responsible for the ban was NTRA.

The above is consistent with the case submitted by the State Council on behalf of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) in the case filed by the Mada website, after the NTRA lawyer placed the responsibility of the block on state institutions – and not NTRA – whether regarding the decision or its implementation. The State Council’s opinion concluded that the decision to ban websites falls within the jurisdiction of the NTRA since it is the body responsible for regulating the communication sector and ensuring access to telecommunications services in all regions of the Republic. In addition, NTRA has legal representation and an independent legal personality, represented by the Chief Executive Officer of the NTRA before the judiciary and in relations with others in accordance with the provisions of Article 17 of the Telecommunications Regulatory Law. The NTRA is also the body concerned in all judicial matters, pursuant to the decision by the Minister of Communications and Information Technology No. 128 of 2006 regarding disputes concerning National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

Rationale given by National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority for denying responsibility for the block of website

In its denial of its association with the block decision, NTRA clarified the role of some other bodies authorized by law to make and implement such a decision. This has been justified by the following:

  1. The Higher council for media regulation is the responsible body

The Higher council for media regulation is the body responsible for such decisions, based on law 92/2013 for institutional media organization, based on the provisions of the law that define the role and mandate of the council, as follows:

  • Article 4 defines the responsibilities of the media council; “imposing penalties and measures mentioned in this law on violations of commitments included in the license or permits, according to procedures outlined in the penalty section provided by the higher council”.

  • Article 26 which specifies penalties that can be imposed on press and media institutions by the council, including “temporary or permanent ban of publishing or broadcasting of press or media material”. The provision can be applied to the various media outlets (auditory, visual, printed or digital). The same article authorizes the council to act upon its own will or upon a complaint it receives and files law suits regarding any violation of the provisions of the law, or if the content evaluation committee noted a violation by any press or media institutions of professional rules and regulations or written norms.

Accordingly, the legal representative of the Mada website demanded an explanation of the legal authority that gives the Supreme Council the right to block the site especially that the NTRA rationalization lacks clarity on the way in which the text of Article 26 of the Law of Institutional Organization was implemented. The council has not yet issued a list of permanent sanctions against the media, and until the time of the court sessions the council works with unpublished temporary penalties. In addition, the Council is not an executive body that has the tools to implement its decisions. The matter must be processed through the competent executive authorities, as stated in article (24) of the Law on the Institutional Media Organization, which obliges all organs of the State to assist the Supreme Council in performance of its functions and to facilitate the exercise of its mandate.

It is noteworthy that NTRA is represented by one member in the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, which includes Eng. Mustafa Abdel Wahed (Acting Chairman of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority); a ban decision must be reported to NTRA, an issue the NTRA representative did not address.

  1. National security bodies have the necessary technology to block websites

The defense of the NTRA representative clarified that the Telecommunications Regulatory Act had authorized mandate to national security authorities, according to provisions of the second paragraph of article 64. 3 NTRA representative indicated that the text gave national security the right to place equipment, programs and systems within communication networks, which enable Armed Forces and national security authorities to exercise their jurisdiction within the limits of the law, and that NTRA was not among the institutions mentioned in the text, nor is it part of the national security apparatus. During the oral proceedings, the NTRA representative pointed out that these organs are entitled to undertake exceptional procedures, considering the situation in the country.

Mada and AFTE lawyers inquired about the exceptional circumstances that entitle those bodies to block websites, especially that the second paragraph of article 64 did not explicitly provide for this right, but obliged the operator or service provider to provide those systems and equipment at their own expense, so that national security authorities can exercise their jurisdiction within the law. Although the text is not accurate and flawed constitutionally, still the formulation did not provide national security with the right to ban. The NTRA representative replied that the provisions of the Telecommunications Law give powers to national security, during the current exceptional circumstances in the country, such as the provisions of article 67. 4

In a subsequent court session, the representative of the Mada submitted a memorandum to respond to the use of article 67 and called for the submission of the plan provided for in Article 655 in cases of natural and environmental disasters, periods of public mobilization and any other circumstances related to national security, as established by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority Armed forces and competent bodies in article 67.

In the memoranda it submitted, NTRA denied the existence of a case for the implementation of Article 65, since the text refers to exceptional circumstances that require a plan by multiple state actors, including NTRA, which is a clear contradiction in its defense.

Decision to block 33 websites

The National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), in its replies to the case of blocking Al Sharq channel, referred to case No. 2315/2013, Cairo urgent cases, which ruled the ban of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. This was followed by the formation of a committee to account and manage the funds of the Muslim Brotherhood6, decreed by the Prime Minister. Following this ruling, a decision was made by the executive judge7 and the committee to freeze some of the entities and funds associated with the group, including an activity ban on 16 websites, 16 channels, as well as the Elmasreyoon web based newspaper to prevent access of content to the Egyptian user (blocking). The decision was accompanied by a list of websites and channels targeted by the ban decision.

Letter by the committee for the freeze and management of Muslim Brotherhood assets to the ministry of communication and information technology
Letter by the committee for the freeze and management of Muslim Brotherhood assets to the ministry of communication and information technology

 

The list of websites to be blocked, issued by the committee for the management and freeze of assets of the Muslim Brotherhood group
The list of websites to be blocked, issued by the committee for the management and freeze of assets of the Muslim Brotherhood group

 

NTRA executes the block through providers of communication services

Since May 2017 until the submission of these documents to court in November, NTRA has been constantly denying its responsibility or knowledge of the blocking decision, despite knowing it and addressing companies to implement it since 2016.

The NTRA representative explained that it does not provide Internet service to the public directly, but that it is provided through licensed companies; and that it does not have the technical technology to block websites and channels on the Internet; that those who can do that are communications service providers licensed by NTRA. Therefore NTRA sent letters to ISPs to implement the blocking decision.

NTRA provided the Court with a form of the letters sent to communication companies to implement the blocking decision to a list of 33 websites. The letter sent on September 8, 2016 to Mr. Adel Al-Dailami, as Vice Chairman of Batelco Misr Communication, states that the NTRA is demanding that the Company implement the Court’s urgent judgment regarding the banning of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, as well as the decision of the executive judge and the decision of the asset freeze committee.

Letter by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to Batelco Misr company
Letter by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to Batelco Misr company

In search of Batelco Misr Communication Telecom, it was found to be a Bahrain Telecommunications Company, with investments in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Maldives, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Isle of Man. In Egypt, Batelco is focused on the business and corporate sectors.

The papers and documents submitted by the NTRA left several issues without clarification:

• The list of websites specified by the committee of custody and management of the Brotherhood’s funds, which included the URLs to be blocked (16 websites, 16 internet channels and Al-Masryoun newspaper). Some of these websites do not work, are out of operation, or have not been blocked.

• The number of blocked websites in Egypt is not only 33, as indicated by the list mentioned above, but amounts to at least 496 websites, which were blocked. The vast majority of these websites are irrelevant to the Muslim Brotherhood.

• A NTRA list requesting the blocking of 33 web sites was issued on 23 August 2016, while the block began on the evening of 24 May 2017.

● The Al-Araby Al-Gadid website that was blocked in December 2015 was not on the list of 33 websites. It was blocked before the issuance of any decisions.

● In its documents and responses NTRA denied any knowledge of the rest of blocked websites, and again indicated the possibility that the Supreme Council for Media Regulation or security bodies may be responsible for this decision and its implementation.

NTRA denies knowledge of decisions to block other websites

The legal position of the blocked websites for which no ban decision was issued either by the executive judge or the reservation committee remains unclear in the documents and memoranda submitted by NTRA or the State Council. NTRA responses persist to deny responsibility, deferring the matter to other state institutions such as the Supreme Media Council or national security as probably responsible of the ban, using the same tactics as in its defenses filed in the Mada and AFTE cases.

The case of Al-Sharq channel has questioned the reasons for the block of a group of other websites such as Al-Jazeera, Misr Al-Arabeya, Arabi 21 and Cairo portal. NTRA replied that it has knowledge regarding the decision to block the list of 33 websites only. As for the rest of the websites, no ban decisions have been issued regarding them, nor are they included in the list of the 33.

Daily News and Borsa and freeze of assets of their owners

On December 5, 2016, the Committee of Custody and Management of the Brotherhood’s Assets issued decree No. 231, ordering the reservation and freezing of assets, accounts and property and prevented their disposition by Mustafa Saqr, president of Business News and others, owners of Daily News Egypt and Elborsa newspapers. Both websites have been blocked since June 2017 until now.

It is surprising that the list of 33 websites was filed in court concerning Al-Shark on November 19, 2017 and did not mention the websites of Al-Borsa and Daily News although they were issued by the Committee of custody and management of funds, which is the same body that issued a decision to reserve the funds of Mustafa Saqr And Business News company. This may suggest – perhaps – the existence of another list that was not sent to court in the Al-Shark case.

Monitoring of blocked websites.. How far has the block reached?

Until the release of this report, AFTE monitored the block of at least 496 websites. AFTE used the OONI tool8 of the Tor Project, a free software and observatory that acts as a network for the detection, monitoring and intervention of data traffic on the Internet. The tool enables testing to ensure site blocking, as well as another spectrum of network tests. It also allows the publication of test results by users9.

The list of blocked websites can be found via this link

During the preparation of the report, AFTE, using the OONI software, tracked blocked websites in Egypt and monitored the development of their nature and number, focusing on monitoring four companies offering Internet services in Egypt (TE Data, Vodafone, Orange and Etisalat) on a daily basis. AFTE compared the results of the various companies, and the results were as follows:

● Since May 24, 2017 until the time of writing, AFTE identified at least 496 website that have been blocked. Some of these websites have returned to work normally and for some the ban is lifted and then returned at times; the majority is still blocked.

● The number of blocked websites differed on each network of the four companies that the organization monitored on a daily basis. Vodafone was the company with the largest number of blocked websites, followed by Orange, Etisalat and TE Data.

• It was noted that the number of blocked websites in each of the four networks had varied during the monitoring period. We found an increase or decrease in the number of blocked websites on the same network on different days.

● It was noted that on some days, the block on most blocked websites was lifted, and then imposed again; it was not possible to know why.

• We noted the block of Skype Instant Messaging application site on Vodafone, Etisalat and Orange networks (Internet Mobile 3G/4G) while not blocked on TE Data. The same application has been blocked in Egypt since 2010 on various mobile Internet networks.

● In August 2017, Egyptian authorities began blocking websites that offer VPN and proxy services. Since then this kind of ban has expanded to include a large number of websites. It is worth noting that a large number of these websites continue to be blocked while they are no longer operating at all.

● Also blocked were the Tor Project site and all its websites, the location of the i2p project and the location of the Free Internet project, all of which allow users to use the Internet while maintaining the privacy and anonymity of users.

● The organization has also noted the block of the Tor network, while users are still able to use the Tor Browser through the use of Tor bridges, despite attempts by the authorities to block many of these bridges.

● The nature of blocked websites in Egypt was diverse. websites that provide proxy and VPN services are the majority of the blocked websites, followed by websites that provide news, press or media content, as well as human rights websites, personal and group blogs and websites of political movements in addition to others that provide technical content, content related to security and privacy on the Internet. Among the blocked websites are also a Shiaa religious site, the site of the “Hasm” armed movement, Skype, and the open whisper systems site developed for the application of Signal for Instant Messaging and the Belahmar site, which defines itself as a nonpartisan platform for dialogue, interaction and creativity in various fields of thought, politics and culture. Some of these websites have returned to work normally, others have the block imposed and lifted randomly, while the majority is still blocked.

On the other hand, there are many circumstances that coincided with the blocking of some websites, as happened with Al-Badeel and Al-Bedaya newspaper. Al-Badeel’s website was hacked and published an article falsely attributed to Khalid al-Balashi, editor of Al-Bedaya newspaper. Also, The January Portal was hacked and published an article falsely attributed to its editor in chief, Amr Badr. Then the three websites were blocked on the same day.

Also, the Saut El-Omma website was blocked for a few days, and then it was lifted without any reason for blocking or lifting it, while the Nun website, which is a women’s blog that provides content unrelated to politics, was blocked for several days by mistake, probably because its name resembles another press site (Noun post), which is also blocked.

On 24 June, the “Seen” site published a cynical video comparing different kinds of Eid El Fitr pastry, among which was a type produced by the armed forces. A few hours after the posting of the video the site was blocked. Also blocked was the site of Human Rights Watch after it published its report on torture in Egypt.

Conclusion

This paper reviewed with the information that AFTE was able to access through the legal proceedings that were taken up to oblige official authorities to disclose the circumstances of blocking of the websites, as well as the information available to the institution through monitoring of the blocked websites. The aim of AFTE in publishing this information is to encourage efforts demanding Egyptian authorities to announce details of their decisions regarding blocking websites and to stop using this practice. AFTE calls for lifting the ban on hundreds of websites and respecting the rights of citizens to access and circulate information.


1 The administrative body in this case is the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority NTRA

2 The State Council is the body that represents the legal civil prosecution of the State in cases and disputes at home and abroad, as well as the settlement of disputes to which the State is a party, the technical control of legal affairs departments in the administrative apparatus of the State, and the preparation and drafting of state contracts.

3 Article 64, paragraph 2, of the Telecommunications Law: Subject to the inviolability of the private life of citizens protected by law, each operator or service provider shall provide at his expense within the licensed telecommunications network all technical capabilities of equipment, systems, that enable the Armed Forces and national security to exercise their jurisdiction within the limits of the law, provided that the provision of the service coincides with the provision of the required technical capabilities. Providers and operators of the telecommunications services and their agents responsible for marketing these services shall also obtain accurate information and data on their users from citizens and the various state bodies.

4 Article 67 of the Telecommunications Law: The competent state authorities may subject to its administration all telecommunications services and networks of any operator or service provider and shall call upon its personnel to operate and maintain such services and networks in the event of a natural or environmental disaster or in cases where public mobilization is declared in accordance with the provisions of Law No. 87 of 1960 and any other cases relating to national security.

5 Article 65 of the Telecommunications Law: The Authority shall, in conjunction with the armed forces and the competent authorities of the State, establish an advance plan for the operation of communication networks to be implemented during natural and environmental disasters and periods of public mobilization according to provisions of Law No. 87 of 1960 regarding public mobilization and any other cases related to national security. The plan will be updated periodically to ensure national defense and security. Operators and service providers are committed to implement this plan.

6 The Committee for the Custody and Management of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Funds: was formed by a decision by the Prime Minister following the issuance of the Cairo Court’s decision on urgent matters in case no. 2315 of 2013, urging the judge to ban the Muslim Brotherhood group.

7 The mandate of the executive judge, in accordance with article 275 of the Code of Procedure, is to adjudicate all disputes related to the execution of a judgment, as well as to issue all decisions and orders relating to its execution.

8 Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI): https://ooni.torproject.org (Blocked in Egypt)

9 Explore OONI Data : https://explorer.ooni.torproject.org/country/EG (Blocked in Egypt)

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