Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression

The State of Internet Censorship in Egypt

A research study by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).

To download a full copy of the report in PDF format click here

Egypt-Internet-Censorship-AFTE-OONI-2018-07

Table of contents

  • Key Findings
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Network landscape and internet penetration
  • Legal environment
  • Reported cases of internet censorship
  • Methodology: Measuring internet censorship in Egypt
  • Acknowledgement of limitations
  • Findings
  • Blocked websites
  • News outlets
  • Human rights
  • Political criticism
  • Circumvention tool sites
  • Blocking of Tor
  • Defense in depth strategy for network filtering
  • Interference of SSL traffic towards the Cloudflare CDN
  • Ad campaign
  • Localizing middleboxes
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgements

Authors: Leonid Evdokimov (OONI), Maria Xynou (OONI), Mohammad El-Taher (AFTE), Hassan Al-Azhary (AFTE), Sarah Mohsen (AFTE)

Probed ISPs: Most measurements collected from Vodafone Egypt (AS36935), Link Egypt (AS24863), Telecom Egypt (AS8452) and Noor (AS20928)

OONI tests: Web Connectivity test, HTTP Invalid Request Line test, HTTP Header Field Manipulation test, WhatsApp test, Facebook Messenger test, Telegram test, Vanilla Tor test, Tor Bridge Reachability test

Testing/analysis period: January 2017 to May 2018

Censorship methods: Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology used to reset connections (HTTP response failures), DNS tampering, TCP injections

Key Findings

Over the last year, internet censorship in Egypt appears to have become more dynamic and pervasive.

Egyptian ISPs don’t seem to serve block pages, but reset connections through the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment. They also appear to be interfering with SSL encrypted traffic between Cloudflare’s Point-of-Presence in Cairo and the backend servers of sites (located outside of Egypt).

Media websites make up most of the sites that we found to be blocked. More than 100 URLs that belong to news outlets appear to be censored, even though Egyptian authorities ordered the blocking of 21 news websites. Many human rights websites and blogs expressing political criticism were found to be blocked as well.

Circumventing internet censorship in Egypt can be challenging. Egyptian ISPs appear to be carrying out “defense in depth” tactics for network filtering, as suggested by the blocking of numerous circumvention tool sites. They also appear to be blocking access to the Tor network and, in some cases, Tor bridges. To block the site of a political party (Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party), ISPs use two different middleboxes, adding extra layers of censorship and making circumvention harder.

Egyptian ISPs appear to be carrying out an ad campaign. Back in 2016, we first found ISPs to be using DPI equipment to hijack unencrypted HTTP connections and redirect them to revenue-generating content, such as affiliate ads. Our analysis of OONI measurements collected from Egypt over the last year strongly suggests that this campaign has been ongoing until (at least) March 2018. A wide range of different types of sites were affected, including news websites, human rights sites, LGBTQI sites, and UN sites (un.org and ohchr.org).

Introduction

This study is part of an ongoing effort to examine internet censorship in Egypt and in more than 200 other countries around the world.

The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Egypt’s Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) collaborated on a joint research study to examine internet censorship in Egypt through the collection and analysis of network measurements. The aim of our study is to document internet censorship in Egypt through the analysis of empirical data.

The following sections of this report provide more detailed information about Egypt’s network landscape and internet penetration levels, its legal environment with respect to censorship and freedom of expression, as well as cases of censorship that have previously been reported in the country. The remainder of the report documents the methodology and findings of this study.

Background

Network landscape and internet penetration

Access to the internet in Egypt has been increasing over the last years. According to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the internet penetration rate in Egypt reached 41.2% by the end of 2017. This is largely based on mobile internet subscriptions, as illustrated in the following table.

Source: Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Information and Communications Technology Indicators Bulletin: December 2017 (Quarterly Issue), http://www.mcit.gov.eg/Upcont/Documents/Publications_142018000_EN_ICT_Indicators_Quarterly_Bulletin_Q4.pdf

By the end of 2017, most Egyptians accessed the internet via their smartphones, while fixed line subscriptions were limited to only 6.9% of the population. Over the last year, there is a noticeable decrease in fixed line penetration and an increase in mobile penetration, suggesting that Egyptians will continue to access the internet primarily on mobile networks.

Source: Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Information and Communications Technology Indicators Bulletin: December 2017 (Quarterly Issue), http://www.mcit.gov.eg/Upcont/Documents/Publications_142018000_EN_ICT_Indicators_Quarterly_Bulletin_Q4.pdf

Egypt has hundreds of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA). Vodafone Egypt enjoys the greatest share (40.5%) within the Egyptian mobile phone market, but state-owned Telecom Egypt owns a 45% share in Vodafone Egypt. Orange Egypt (owned by a French company) has a share of 33% in the mobile phone market, while Etisalat Misr (owned by an Emirati company) has a share of 24%. As for the fixed-line broadband market, Telecom Egypt controls 75% of the ADSL market.

In addition to owning a large share in Vodafone Egypt, state-owned Telecom Egypt also owns all of Egypt’s telecommunications infrastructure. They lease licenses to Egypt’s main ISPs – such as Noor, Etisalat Egypt, and Vodafone Egypt – who subsequently resell bandwidth to smaller ISPs. As a result, Egypt’s internet infrastructure is quite centralized.

Legal environment

Egypt’s Constitution includes several provisions for the protection of press freedom and freedom of expression more generally. These provisions, however, can be restricted under certain conditions and under various Egyptian laws.

Constitutional provisions

The Egyptian Constitution of 2014 guarantees access to information, protects press freedom and restricts censorship.

According to Article 57 of the Constitution:

The state shall protect the rights of citizens to use all forms of public means of communication, which may not be arbitrarily disrupted, stopped or withheld from citizens, as regulated by the law.”

Article 68 of the Constitution guarantees the right to access information and official documents. More specifically, it states:

Information, data, statistics and official documents are owned by the people. Disclosure thereof from various sources is a right guaranteed by the state to all citizens. The state shall provide and make them available to citizens with transparency. The law shall organize rules for obtaining such, rules of availability and confidentiality, rules for depositing and preserving such, and lodging complaints against refusals to grant access thereto. The law shall specify penalties for withholding information or deliberately providing false information.”

Based on this Article, Egyptian authorities can be compelled to disclose judicial or administrative decisions on censorship. Article 71 of the Constitution protects press freedom and prohibits media censorship (though it can be justified during war or in times of general mobilization):

It is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets in any way. Exception may be made for limited censorship in time of war or general mobilization.”

Emergency Law

During a state of emergency, constitutional rights are suspended. Egypt’s Emergency Law allows the government to intercept and monitor all communications, impose censorship and confiscate publications.

Under Article 3 of this law, authorities can monitor letters, newspapers, publications, editions, drawings and all other means of expression, prior to their dissemination. They are also authorized to control and expropriate them, and to shut down the places where such publications are printed (such as the offices of newspapers). Article 3 of Egypt’s Emergency Law could potentially be referenced to justify the blocking of websites.

Egypt has been in a state of emergency since 1958 (when the Emergency Law was first issued), except for a few short breaks. In recent years, the longest period without a state of emergency lasted for 13 months, from July 2012 to August 2013. Over the last decades, Egypt has almost constantly been in a state of emergency through the continuous issuance of decrees that extend it. More recently, the Egyptian government declared a state of emergency in April 2017, following two church bombings that killed at least 44 people. A year later in April 2018, the government issued its fourth decree to extend the state of emergency for another three months.

Anti-terrorism law

Three years ago, in 2015, Egypt adopted an anti-terrorism law which imposes a fine for publishing reports that contradict official accounts of militant attacks. Critics of the law have argued that it could potentially be used to shut down small newspapers and to deter larger ones from reporting on attacks and operations against armed fighters.

Under Article 29 of this law, the Public Prosecutor (or the relevant investigating authority) is authorized to block websites that commit criminal offences, such as inciting violence or spreading terrorist messages.

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