Legalizing blocking and communications surveillance: New laws enacted by the state to tighten its control over internet

Date : Tuesday, 4 September, 2018

The undersigned organizations condemn the Egyptian government’s insistence on cracking down on the freedom of the internet and on tightening its hold on any space for free expression. In this context the president ratified on 18 August the “Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law”. The Egyptian parliament passed the law, which aims to restrict digital rights and to confiscate activists’ freedoms online, on July 5.

The Egyptian authorities have carried out many practices during previous periods to control cyberspace. Such practices began on 24 May 2017 by blocking websites on a large scale; the number of blocked websites amounted to more than 500 sites. No government entity has claimed responsibility for blocking those sites or gave reasons for blocking them except for the decision by the committee appraising and seizing the funds of members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group to block 33 sites. Numerous claims were made to disclose the legal basis for blocking, in addition to many lawsuits that were filed before the administrative judiciary. The Egyptian authorities have also charged activists with several accusations related to electronic publishing during the past few years; authorities have also imported technologies and software for spying and surveillance.

Legalizing internet censorship

The signatory organizations also reject legalizing internet censorship; the promulgation of the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law in this period appears to be an attempt by the authority to legalize the repressive steps it took more than a year ago regarding internet censorship. The provisions of the law provide broad and general grounds for blocking websites that can be adapted and interpreted in accordance with the directives of the security services and the investigation authorities. The law states in its article 7 that the concerned authorities have the power to block websites in the event of “publishing any content that constitutes a crime under the law, provided it poses a threat to national security or endangers the security of the country or its national economy”. The failure to define what the legislator means by threatening national security or endangering the country’s security and economy opens the door to the authority in Egypt to expand internet censorship and to suppress its users.

This comes along with granting the investigatory, inquiry, and security entities the power to block websites directly, while the judicial control of such decisions comes later; these entities may ask the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) to block websites, which in turn asks service providers to block websites. On the other hand, the law imposes penalties (imprisonment and financial penalties) on telecommunications companies in case of failure to implement the blocking decisions as soon as they are received. 

Legalizing mass surveillance of communications

The “Cyber ​​Crime” law endorses the mass surveillance of communications in Egypt; operators are required to keep and store customer usage data for a period of 180 days, including data that enables user identification, data regarding content of the information system, and data related to the equipment used. This means that telecommunications service providers will have data of all user activities, including phone calls and text messages, sites visited, and applications used on smartphones and computers. NTRA can also issue an administrative decision obliging telecommunications companies to save “other data” without specifying and without stipulating it in the law.National security entities (defined by the law as: Presidency, Armed Forces, Ministry of the Interior, General Intelligence and Administrative Control Authority) were also granted the right to review the data referred to in the preceding paragraph. The telecommunication service providers are also obliged to provide the technical capabilities to those entities.

This approach to impose mass surveillance on all users in Egypt, is contrary to Article 57 of the Egyptian constitution, which states: “Private life is inviolable, safeguarded and may not be infringed upon. Telegraph, postal, and electronic correspondence, telephone calls, and other forms of communication are inviolable, their confidentiality is guaranteed, and they may only be confiscated, examined or monitored by causal judicial order, for a limited period, and in cases specified by the law”. But the law imposes surveillance without being linked to a judicial move to uncover a complicity in a crime that is legally prohibited, which is a violation of the constitutional protection of communication data. 

Institutional Organization of Press and Media Act

The signatories also condemn the Institutional Organization of Press and Media Act, which in turn gives the Supreme Media Regulatory Council, the power to block websites. In accordance with article 19 of the draft law, a website may be blocked in case of publishing or broadcasting false news or news that incite violence, hatred, discrimination, racism, intolerance, blasphemy, and insulting of divine religions. As in the case of cybercrime law, the words and phrases used here are broad and loose and can be interpreted according to the whims of the law enforcement authorities. These words have been used in the past to adapt many of the charges against activists for expressing their opinions, whether through digital media or otherwise. 

In addition to the blocking of websites, the draft law regulating the work of the press and media, which is awaiting the ratification of the President to become effective, expands blocking to personal accounts on social media, which have 5000 followers. The Supreme Media Regulatory Council has the right to block those accounts if it believes that they publish or broadcast false news, incite a violation of the law, violence or hatred, discriminate between citizens, or advocate racism or intolerance.

The signatories believe that the “Cyber ​​Crime Act” and the Institutional Organization of Press and Media draft law are just two new episodes in the authority’s attempt to impose full control over cyberspace as part of its efforts to close the public domain, and any space available for freedom of expression. Hence, the signatory organizations call for the immediate repeal of the “Cyber ​​Crime Act”, as well as the review of articles on internet surveillance and blocking of websites in the Institutional Organization of Press and Media draft law.

Signatory Organizations:

Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights

Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression

Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Al Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence

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