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

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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 until now. The number of websites increased from 21 to 465, which were temporarily or permanently blocked at the time of writing. 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, 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