The State of Internet Censorship in Egypt

Date : Monday, 2 July, 2018
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Telecommunications Regulatory Law

Telecommunications in Egypt are centrally administered, potentially enabling centralized internet censorship.

Article 67 of Egypt’s Telecommunications Regulatory Law allows authorities to administer all telecommunications services and networks of all operators and service providers in light of environmental disasters, general mobilization, or to preserve national security. In such cases, this law can enable authorities to implement internet censorship in a centralized way. According to AFTE, Egyptian authorities referred to this law to censor communications and internet services during the Egyptian revolution in January 2011 on the grounds of national security.

In extension of Article 67, Article 68 of the law aims to exempt service providers from the scope of liability and to even compensate them for any damages that may occur as as result of government network management. Recently, however, Egypt’s Parliamentary Committee of Communications approved Article 31 of the draft Cyber Crime bill. This Article aims to punish Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who refrain from blocking websites that “threaten national security” according to court orders.

Cyber Crime Bill

Egypt’s Parliament recently approved the Cyber Crime Bill, legalizing the blocking of websites and expanding upon surveillance powers.

Article 7 of the Bill authorizes the investigative authority to block websites when it considers that the content published on these sites constitutes a crime or threat to national security or jeopardizes the security of the country or its national economy. The investigative authority presents the matter to the competent court within 24 hours and the court shall issue its decision within a period not exceeding 72 hours either by acceptance or rejection.

Article 7 then expands on granting the authority to issue a blocking decision, giving the right to investigation and enforcement authorities (the police) to inform NTRA to immediately notify service providers of the temporary blocking of the sites. The order has to be immediately executed upon receipt. As with all provisions of the Cyber Crime Bill, which is rife with vague terms that can include anything, the power to issue a blocking order is given to investigation and enforcement authorities in “cases of urgency caused by imminent danger or damage.”

It is noted that the investigation and enforcement authorities have the authority to issue a decision to implement a block without the need for prior permission. Then the decision is presented by investigation bodies to the court within 24 hours; and then the court issues its decision in a period not exceeding 72 hours either by acceptance or rejection. The decision of investigative authorities is neither enforced nor implemented, except after a judicial decision is issued by the competent court.

The law does not give any definition or clarification of what may be considered by the investigative authorities to jeopardize the security and economy of the country. These accusations were previously directed against many of the demonstrators and activists in investigations and trials. The calls for demonstrations were considered a threat to national security. In the foreign funding case no. 173 activities of independent civil society organizations were considered a threat to national security and the safety of the country. While the law does not define the threat to the country’s security and economy, it provides a broad definition of national security which includes all aspects of independence, stability and security of the homeland and its unity and safety, of its territory, affairs of the Presidency, the Council of Defense, the National Security Council, the armed forces and military production, the Ministry of the Interior, the General Intelligence, the Administrative Oversight Authority, and the organs affiliated to those bodies. This definition can not include everything published by any of the mentioned entities on social media, news sites or any sites that publish content contrary to the authority’s policies.

Although Article 5 of the Explanatory Note protects personal data of users, the following provisions of the law entrench comprehensive surveillance over all users of telecommunications services in Egypt. Article 2 of the law requires telecommunications companies to keep and store customer usage data for 180 days, including data that enables user identification and data relating to the content of the information system, the movement of the user and the devices used. This means that telecom providers will have data that describes all user practices, including phone calls and text messages, and all related data, websites visited and applications used on smartphones and computers.

Article 5 also requires telecommunications companies to comply with any “other data to be determined by a decision” from the NTRA board, which means that telecommunication providers can be obliged to collect and retain data not provided for in the law, but only upon an administrative decision issued by the NTRA. The article grants the right to national security authorities to view these data and obliges providers of telecommunications services to provide the technical assistance for this. The article stipulates that “the service providers and their subordinates shall, in the event of a request by national security authorities and according to need, provide those authorities with all available technical facilities so that they may exercise their mandate in accordance with the law.” The Act defines national security bodies to include the Presidency, the Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, the General Intelligence and the Administrative Oversight Authority. Article 5 does not address any details linking surveillance with any of the crimes mentioned in the law, but imposes comprehensive surveillance on all users in Egypt.

While Egyptian citizens already have many problems with having to disclose their personal data in their normal daily practices, the article expands the authority to collect user data, requiring “IT service providers, their agents and distributors who market these services to obtain user data”. This practice is already in existence and caused chaos in the use of personal data of citizens. Egypt has no laws concerning the protection of personal data. During the past year, AFTE documented several cases in which some distributors used personal data of users without their knowledge, including the sale of mobile phone lines. As a result, in many cases, personal accounts were compromised on social networks and e-mail, and all services associated with them have been compromised as the use of ICT in business and financial transactions grows, as well as subjecting them to prosecutions in case any telecommunications services were used to commit a crime punishable by law.

In the same context, the text of Article 4 of the law deals with the exchange of data and information between Egypt and foreign countries through the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation within the framework of international, regional and bilateral agreements or the application of the principle of reciprocity, without defining the conditions for this exchange of information, particularly concerning the existence of data protection laws in other countries or requirements regarding the scope, duration of retention or processing of information.

Access to Information law

Since the establishment of the right to access information in the Egyptian Constitution issued in 2012 and the current Constitution issued in 2014, a number of drafts on the Access to Information Law have been prepared. The last of these drafts issued by the Committee, which was formed through the Supreme Media Council, was submitted to the Egyptian Cabinet in late 2017 in preparation for its discussion in parliament. However, since its submission, the draft has not been discussed yet.

During recent government practices, including the blocking of websites, the Supreme Media Council formed a committee to draft a law to access information pursuant to the constitutional provision stipulated in Article 68 of the Egyptian Constitution. The committee completed drafting a law in October 2017, consisting of 28 articles regulating the concept of the right to access information, the scope of exceptions related to information and data that are not accessible, the formation of a higher information council, the nature of offenses, and offenses related to access to information and their penalties. The draft was submitted to the Egyptian Cabinet in preparation for its discussion in parliament. However, since its submission, the draft has not been discussed yet.

Reported cases of internet censorship

Unlike other countries in the region, few internet censorship events were reported in Egypt in the years following the 2011 revolution. In late 2015, however, things changed. Along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt reportedly blocked access to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a Qatari-owned news website. The blocking was justified on the grounds of the site “serving as a mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood” and in light of escalating tension in the region.

Network measurement data collected through the use of OONI Probe not only confirmed the blocking of Al-Alarby, but also showed that an alternative domain (alarabyaljadeed.co.uk) set up for censorship circumvention was also blocked. OONI reported that the blocking of Al-Alarby resulted in collateral damage, since other websites hosted on the same Content Delivery Network (CDN) were found to be blocked as well.

Soon thereafter, Egypt started blocking a variety of news outlets. On 24th May 2017, the Egyptian government ordered ISPs to block 21 news websites on the grounds of “supporting terrorism and lies”. Through the collection and analysis of network measurements, OONI identified the blocking of ten news websites – including local and international news, such as Mada Masr and Aljazeera. OONI also found the Tor anonymity network, the Tor domain, Tor bridges, and their own website – which is a Tor subdomain – to be blocked in Egypt as well. But this was not the first time OONI noticed that access to the Tor network was interfered with in Egypt. In 2016, OONI reported on attempts by Egyptian ISPs to block access to the Tor network.

In an attempt to identify all 21 blocked news outlets and to investigate further, AFTE collected more network measurements through the use of OONI Probe across multiple ISPs in Egypt. They subsequently published two research reports on the blocking of (at least) 496 websites, suggesting that internet censorship in Egypt has now become pervasive. These blocked sites expand beyond news outlets, also including human rights websites, circumvention tools, blogs, publishing platforms, the sites of political movements, social networks, and wikis, among other types of websites.

According to AFTE, the blocking of media websites is in violation of Article 57 of the Constitution, which states that it is not permissible to suspend the means of public communication arbitrarily. AFTE also asserted that the block is in violation of a number of administrative and constitutional courts, as well as of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of United Nations resolutions and charters that the Egyptian government is committed to.

More recently, AFTE published another research report on the blocking of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in Egypt, affecting millions of others websites that use it. AMP improves the performance of webpages on mobile phones, providing a faster and better experience for smartphone users. In Egypt, many owners of blocked websites adopted AMP as a censorship circumvention strategy. Since AMP serves alternative links to the original links that appear on Google search, users are redirected to an alternative domain, circumventing the blocking of the original site. By blocking AMP, Egyptian authorities not only make censorship circumvention harder for blocked sites, but they also affect millions of other websites that use AMP merely for the purpose of providing better web performance to their smartphone users.

This is one of various cases where censorship practices in Egypt have led to collateral damage. In 2016, OONI reported on the HTTPS throttling of services hosted by DigitalOcean’s Frankfurt data centre, leading to the inaccessibility of various URLs. As part of this report, OONI also uncovered an ad campaign. State-owned Telecom Egypt was found to be using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology (or similar networking equipment) to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks to inject content for gaining profit (affiliate advertising) or malicious purposes (to serve malware).

Recently, the Citizen Lab expanded on this research by investigating the use of Sandvine/Procera Networks DPI devices for malicious or dubious ends in Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. As part of their research, they found that middleboxes were being used in Egypt to hijack users’ unencrypted connections and redirect them to revenue-generating content, such as affiliate ads and browser cryptocurrency mining scripts. The Citizen Lab also found that devices, matching their Sandvine PacketLogic fingerprint, were being used to block dozens of political, human rights, and news websites in Egypt, including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Al Jazeera, Mada Masr and HuffPost Arabic.

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