On December 5, 2017, The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression published a new report entitled “Occasionally by Decree.. Update on the Block of Websites in Egypt“.
Update 2.2 (1 Feb 2018)
The number of blocked websites rose to 496, at least.
On Wednesday May 24th 2017, the Egyptian government blocked a number of websites in Egypt without any official announcement. Internet users in Egypt were surprised by the blocking of websites, without any clarification from the government agencies or the telecommunications companies. On the same day, the country’s official state news agency, Middle East News Agency, quoted a high-level security source as saying that access to 21 websites had been blocked. Later, Egyptian and foreign newspapers and media tried to know the details of the blocking decision, but no one could reach concrete information. Reuters news agency, later quoted a source from the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), who did not confirm or deny the block, but said: “I have no information. So what if it is true? It should not be a problem?”
Report: From a Sovereign Authority
Al-Masry Al-Youm Newspaper published a report, From a Sovereign Authority, on May 25th 2017 . The report illustrates the experiences of countries (Arab and foreign) who have blocked previously blocked websites, in order to justify the Government of Egypt’s decision. The main points in the report can be summarized as follows:
- The report claims that ‘state censorship of social media platforms is a legitimate right’.
- No official source denied the report’s authenticity.
- The report explicitly recognizes the blocking of 21 websites by the Egyptian government; however, we have monitored 496 blocked websites thus far.
- There was no mention of any of the articles of the Egyptian Constitution or Law in the report to justify the legality of the blocking decisions.
- The report presents some countries’ experience in blocking websites, countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Turkey, which are infamous for their hostile attitudes towards the Internet.
- One of the Report sections entitled ‘Top 10 Countries with Internet Surveillance’, ranks the above-mentioned countries with North Korea coming first, Saudi Arabia fourth, Iran at fifth place, and China at sixth.
- The report demonstrates the reasons for blocking websites in countries all around the world, and limits them to the following: Terrorism, ‘prostitution’, illegal immigration, and money laundering. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the websites blocked in Egypt are news and media platforms.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has followed up several news and posts on social networks related to blocking a number of news websites. In this report we present a legal and technical analysis of the undeclared blockage decision.
Monitoring of the blocked sites in Egypt
During the period from May 24th 2017 to 1 Feb 2018, AFTE monitored the blocking of a number of websites in Egypt. A group of Egyptian newspapers sites, licensed to work in Egypt, has been blocked. In its monitoring, AFTE has adopted a set of technical standards to confirm the blockage:
AFTE has relied on OONI software of the (Tor Project). It is a free software, global observation network for detecting censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation on the internet. OONI enables testing to detect site blocking, as well as another spectrum of network tests. It also allows users to publish tests’ results. AFTE compared the results of the tests it obtained using the tool to the results of other tests published by users from Egypt.
AFTE has tested the accessibility of blocked sites through a variety of Internet service providers in Egypt (TE Data, Vodafone, Orange, Etisalat, LINKdotNET, NOOR). The association has used the Tor browser, various proxy services and websites, and VPN service to make sure that the sites work outside of Egypt.
AFTE has communicated with users – whether directly or through social networks – of 7 networks to detect their access to blocked sites. We also followed user posts on social networks reporting their inability to access certain websites.
No official statements have been issued by the telecommunications companies, NTRA or the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Consequently, no government data has been relied upon to confirm or deny the ban, with the exception of some published material in newspapers and news websites.
Sometimes the results of the blocking test were different when different methods were used in writing (URLs) to access blocked sites (adding and not adding W.W.W) or using HTTPS protocol.
The association has communicated with the customer service in the five companies providing communication and Internet service in Egypt to inquire about the blockade. The companies have attributed the inability of users to access blocked sites to the failures in the sites and not to blockade. This failure allegation contradicts all test results.
The results of the monitoring conducted by AFTE to detect the number of sites that were blocked were as follows:
The association monitored the blocking of 496 websites from May 24th 2017 to 1 Feb 2018, in addition to blocking (Al Araby Al Jadeed) website by in 2015.
- On Monday the 12th of June, we noticed the beginning of blocking websites that provide VPN services. Such practice points to the intent of the Government to continue blocking and filtering the content that Egyptian users could access.
The results of the blocking tests differed between the companies tested by OONI tool, as the results for the same site differed on different networks.
At several times, the number of blocked sites differed between companies. AFTE detected a difference in the number of blocked sites on each network, especially as some sites were blocked and unblocked several times on the same network. Noor Company came as the company with the lowest number of blocked sites. Noor is the only company that did not disconnect the Internet from its users during the events of the Egyptian revolution 2011.
The blocking of some sites has affected other sites on the same domain. For example, it was noted that with the blocking of Al-Jazeera website (Arabic site), 10 other sites using sub domains of Aljazeera.net were also blocked.
It was noted that some sites were temporarily blocked during the monitoring period, then were accessible again to a large segment of users, and then blocked again.
Some blocked sites are affiliated to licensed newspapers such as Daily News Egypt, Al Borsa, and Almesryoon. Some other sites are owned by companies registered in Egypt, such as Mada Masr and Masr Alarabia. It is also noted that the state has dealt normally with many blocked sites during previous periods, for example, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah AL Sisi wrote two articles in Daily News Egypt, the first in 2017 and the second in 2015.
Some blocked sites have used alternative domains to bypass blocking:
Daily News Egypt used thedailynewsegypt.com domain instead of dailynewsegypt.com
Al Borsa newspaper used the domain elborsanews.com, instead of alborsanews.com.
Almesryoon newspaper used the domain elmesryoon.com, instead of almesryoon.com.
At different times, it was noted that access to blocked sites was possible through the use of Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS), as what happened for example with Mada Masr’s.
Some of the blocked sites did not announce they are blocked for a while, despite assurances from their audience that they could not access the sites, for example, Daily News Egypt.
Note: During OONI blocking tests, the (HTTP Invalid Request Line) test showed data that might indicate Internet monitoring on Vodafone network. The result shows that, based on the technique used in this test, the use of three spy software (BlueCoat, Squid, Privoxy) in 11 different countries, was detected.
The list of blocked websites can be found via this link
Often the results of the site-blocking tests were different depending on the location and the network through which the test was conducted. The association monitored 4 different test results, shown by the OONI tool. The following are examples of the results:
Below are some pictures of the results of some blocked sites:
The legality of blockage in Egypt
The blocking of websites violates the Egyptian Constitution. Blocking is related to the freedom of the media, the inadmissibility of stopping or confiscating it, and the public’s right to know and to access information.
Most of the blocked sites are news websites, which constitute a clear attack on the media, and contradicts Article 52 of the Constitution, which states: “The State shall protect citizens’ right to use all forms of public means of communications. Interrupting or disconnecting them, or depriving the citizens from using them, arbitrarily, is impermissible. This shall be regulated by Law”.
It also contradicts Article 71 of the Constitution, which states: “It is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets in any way. By way of exception, they may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or general mobilization”.
Moreover, the failure of the Egyptian government -so far -to disclose any judicial or administrative decision to block the aforementioned sites is contrary to Article 68 of the Constitution, which states: “Information, data, statistics and official documents are the property of the People and the disclosure thereof from their various sources is a right guaranteed by the State for all citizens. The State is committed to provide and make them available to citizens in a transparent manner. The Law shall regulate the rules for obtaining them and terms for their availability and confidentiality; the rules for their deposit and storage; and the rules for filing complaints against the refusal to provide them. The Law shall also impose penalties for withholding information or deliberately providing wrong information”.
The following are the possible legal justifications of the blocking decision of 496 websites (is a decision existed):
Under the anti-terrorism law:
The anti-terrorism law has a special nature, because it contains several forms of criminalization and a wide range of powers to deal with certain crimes, including the closure of websites. The law mentions a procedure concerning the possibility of blocking websites that commit offenses criminalized under article 29, and it states in the third paragraph of article 49, that: “The Public Prosecutor or the relevant investigating authority shall stop the sites provided for in the first paragraph of Article (29) of this Law, block them, or block their content to prevent any aspect of use set forth in this Article. It shall also retain the devices and equipment used in the crime”. This text is the most explicit and clear text regarding the possibility of blocking websites. This procedure is related to the existence of investigations by the Public Prosecution, which has not been announced, and the officials in these sites have not been summoned for investigation after the blocking decision, yet there is a possibility of summoning them later. So the blockage is considered a preliminary measure taken by the investigating body.
It is worth mentioning that the authorities have earlier frozen the assets of the owner of one of these websites. Cairo Court of Urgent Matters issued a decision to seize and freeze assets, accounts and property of “Mustafa Mokhtar Mohammed Saqr,” the president of “Business News” company, the owner of Daily News Egypt and Al Borsa news websites.
Under the Emergency Law:
On April 17th, 2017, the state of emergency was proclaimed throughout the country for a period of three months by a decision of the President after the approval of the Egyptian Government. Law No. 162 of the year 1958, known as the Emergency Law, was repealed. It states in Article 3 that: “Whenever the state of emergency is declared the President of the Republic may take by a written or verbal order the following measures: 1.Set restrictions on the freedom of persons to meet, move, reside or pass in certain places or times, as well as assigning any person to perform any task. 2. Order monitoring letters whatever their type may be, monitoring newspapers, publications, editions, drawings and all means of expression, advertisement and announcement before dissemination and to control, expropriate them and close the places of printing them”. This means that declaring the state of emergency is a disruption of the constitutional guarantees related to many freedoms, as the article applies to all means of expression and publicity; hence it opens the door for the possibility of blocking websites. It should be noted that basing the decision to declare the state of emergency on this article is problematic; its text allows the blockage orally, which means that it is difficult to ascertain the issuance of a decision on this matter. In the absence of a written decision there is no possibility to challenge it before the Administrative Court as an administrative decision.
Under the Telecommunications Regulatory Law:
The telecommunications law grants the Egyptian government the authority to control telecommunications networks in Egypt. Article 67 of the Telecommunications Regulatory law states that, “The State competent authorities shall have the power to subject to their administration all Telecommunication Services and networks of any Operator or Service Provider and call operation and maintenance employees of such services and networks in case of natural or environmental disasters or during declared periods of general mobilization in accordance with the provisions of Law No. 87 of 1960 or any other cases concerning National Security”. This article was used to cut off communications and Internet services during the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, and may has been used to block access to certain services and sites recently.
As for the responsibility of intermediary internet service providers in Egypt, the Telecommunications Law state in Article 68 that: “Obligations of Telecommunication Services Operators or Providers shall be reduced to the extent any of their obligations has been affected, directly or indirectly, as a result of executing the provisions of Articles (65) and (67). For Indemnity Telecommunication Operators and Providers shall have the right for suitable indemnity for damages liable to occur as a result of subjecting the Telecommunication Services in application of the provisions of Article (67) of this law”. It is clear from the article that there is a clear balance between giving the government the ability to subdue network management to government’s authority, and exempting service providers of the consequences of this procedure. This means that the philosophy of the Telecommunications law aims primarily to protect government practices in exchange of the removal of service providers from the scope of liability and even compensating them for the damages.
Conclusion and recommendations
The paper presented documentation for the blocking of 496 websites in Egypt and also discussed the possible legal justifications of the blocking decision, which is related to anti- terrorism, emergency and communications laws. Based on the technical and legal analysis presented, AFTE makes these recommendations:
1. The Egyptian government must respect the freedom of opinion and expression and stop the decision made to block 496 websites.
2.The Egyptian government must stop using legal texts that are not commensurate with the constitution, in restricting freedom of expression and freedom of circulation of information.
3. The Egyptian government must disclose the blocking decision. The Public Prosecution must also disclose the decision if it’s based on its investigations.
4. Telecommunications companies that provide users with the Internet service must reveal the blocking reasons and must commit to their responsibility towards their customers.
5. The Journalists Syndicate and the Supreme Council for Media must do their part in confronting the assault on press freedom and protecting the public’s right to know.