The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) condemns the current measures, executed by the Egyptian Government on Internet censorship and blockade. The Egyptian government has been resorting to such measures over the last few years, and more frequently since May 2017, marking a peak of unprecedented and widespread practices of websites blocking. According to NetBlocks‘ report, the latest measurements is blocking over 34,000 domains from internet users in Egypt in order to stamp out the campaign, Batel, means “void” in Arabic, that is opposing the proposed amendments to the Constitution.
The Batel campaign has launched its first online platform on April 9, 2019, for a petition against the constitutional amendments recently approved by the Egyptian parliament, to be presented to the public in a popular referendum later this month. However, the Egyptian authorities have blocked it after only 13 hours of launching and amassing around 60000 signatures, according to the campaign’s official Facebook page. In the aftermath of the first blocking, the campaign provided alternative domains that users can access without VPN circumvention tools, but the Egyptian government managed to block them. By filtering all the websites that share the hosting IP range, over 34000 websites got blocked as the authorities sought restricting any online content related to the campaign.
According to NetBlocks‘ data, the filters have been activated on Telecom Egypt, Raya, Vodafone and Orange. They have blocked access to a range of websites and sub-domains served from an IP address assigned to the Netfly hosting service, including prominent technology startups, self-help websites, celebrity homepages, dozens of Open Source technology projects, as well as Bahá’í, Jewish group websites and NGOs.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression asserts that the concerned authorities’ practices reflect an apparent disregard of the Egyptians’ digital rights and particularly the activists’ online freedom of expression which is protected by Articles NO. 57, 65, 68, 71 of the Egyptian Constitution. Similar measures were executed on February 3, 2018, when the Egyptian government has blocked the Google-affiliated service, AMP, which affected smartphone users using Google’s search engine for any website that uses AMP. Users were thus unable to access these websites, including websites that the Egyptian government has not blocked. Consequently, Google has announced the suspension of its services in Egypt.
Many of blocked media and press websites used the AMP service to help its audiences overcome the blockade. As the AMP service shows alternative links to the original ones in the search results on Google’s search engine, pointing to other links from the Google domain, which means that if a blocked website appears in Google search results and that website uses AMP, the user will be redirected to an unblocked page. This is the method adopted by some blocked websites in Egypt, where the links produced by AMP were used and disseminated on social networks to reach the public with no need for technical expertise to bypass the blocking. And after the spread of the use of the AMP service by some blocked websites in Egypt, the Egyptian authorities immediately blocked AMP regardless of the way the blockage could affect many other websites and beneficiaries of such service.
The aforementioned undoubtedly affirm the disrespect of the Egyptian citizens’ digital rights and the unprecedented expansion of the online mass surveillance policies by the Egyptian government. It is noteworthy that the Egyptian authorities have also blocked MEDIUM platform which was used by some of the banned websites to publish their content, such as the New Arab and Arab 21 websites, in an attempt to provide their material on unobstructed platforms in Egypt. However, the Egyptian government blocked the website in June 2017. The block of MEDIUM added another major constraint on internet use, since it is a platform for collective publishing, widely used by bloggers and institutions, and involves millions of pages in all fields and in several languages. The number of its pages archived on Google exceeds 14 million web pages.
On 24 May 2017, Egypt began to block websites in order to restrict the digital content produced by independent or opposing media organisations. The number of blocked websites over the last two years totals about 519, including more than 103 press or media websites. Moreover, the Egyptian authorities have blocked many of VPN websites and TOR network services to completely prevent the Egyptian citizens and media organisations from overcoming the blockage.
The entity responsible for the implementation of such measures remains unknown to date despite several lawsuits before the Administrative Court. Furthermore, the recently ratified law of “Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law” on August 18, 2018, provides 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. In addition to the given authority to the Supreme Council for Media Regulation by the law No. 180 of 2018 regulating the press and the media to impose sanctions on any website in case of law violation or its sanctions’ bylaw that recently issued by the Supreme Council in May 2017.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression points out that the Egyptian authorities’ insistence of tracking down the several Batel campaign’s domains and other mentioned platforms is a part of wider policies to dominate the information and news circulation against the Constitutional Amendments. The amendments allow the current president to extend his time in office till 2030. This has been reflected in escalating attempts to restrict Egyptian citizens’ online freedoms. Since AFTE has documented arresting two members of Aldostour part. Helal Samir who has been arrested from his house in Cairo Governorate, and Gamal Fadel from Aswan Governorate. After they posted videos on social media rejecting the Constitutional Amendments. The State Security Prosecution has decided the pretrial detention of Samir and Fadel on a charge of joining a terrorist group in case 277/2019 State Security
Hence, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression urges the Egyptian government to respect its constitutional obligations and the related international treaties and conventions. Also, AFTE calls on the concerned authorities to stop the mass online surveillance, to immediate cessation of the wide-scale blocking measures, which have started since May 2017, to lift the block on all websites and to non-discriminatory respect of the Egyptian Citizens’ online freedoms.