The State of Internet Censorship in Egypt

Date : Monday, 2 July, 2018
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Findings

Blocked websites

Egyptian ISPs do not appear to implement block pages (at least for none of the tested sites), limiting our ability to confirm censorship events with absolute confidence.

To examine the blocking of websites, we analyzed all of OONI’s Web Connectivity measurements collected from local vantage points in Egypt between January 2017 to May 2018. As part of our analysis, we examined which websites presented network anomalies, whether those network anomalies were consistent and persistent over time, and whether those sites had high global failure rates (as part of efforts to rule out false positives). Overall, 1,054 URLs presented network anomalies and signs of network interference throughout the testing period of this study. Many of these sites, however, were accessible most of the times that they were tested, suggesting that some of the failures were either false positives or that those sites were only temporarily blocked.

We narrowed our analysis to the URLs that consistently presented a high amount of network anomalies (e.g. HTTP failures) in comparison to the total amount of times that they were tested over time. We subsequently filtered out many URLs that had expired or squatted domains. Such URLs may have been blocked (given that they presented a high ratio of network anomalies), but we decided to exclude them from this study since they are no longer operational anyway (limiting the impact of their potential censorship). This left us with 181 URLs that consistently presented the same types of anomalies most of the times that they were tested across multiple ISPs over time, strongly suggesting that they were inaccessible in Egypt.

These 181 URLs, however, include 3 Israeli domains (isa.gov.il, iaf.org.il, mod.gov.il) that don’t appear to be blocked by Egyptian ISPs, but by Israel. There is no common policy in terms of how they’re blocked. The nameserver for isa.gov.il does not respond to Egyptian IPs, access to iaf.org.il from Egypt is blocked on the IP level, while mod.gov.il appears to be inaccessible in Egypt due to geographic-based restrictions.

Excluding these 3 Israeli sites, a total of 178 URLs appear to most likely have been blocked by Egyptian ISPs, given that they were tested hundreds of times across multiple networks, and consistently presented a high ratio of network failures. These sites primarily appear to be blocked through the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology which was used to reset connections, leading to HTTP response failures.

Over the last year, internet censorship in Egypt appears to have become quite pervasive, since many different types of sites appear to be blocked. The chart below illustrates the types of sites that presented the highest amount of network anomalies and are therefore considered to more likely have been blocked.

Most of the censored sites include news outlets, followed by a number of circumvention tool sites, human rights sites, and several blogs and sites that express political criticism.

In May 2017, the Egyptian government ordered the blocking of 21 news websites, but our analysis suggests that more than 100 news websites may have been blocked over the last year. A considerable amount of sites hosting human rights content and views expressing political criticism presented a high ratio of anomalies as well, indicating that the censorship may have been politically motivated. The fact that many circumvention tool sites also presented a high ratio of network anomalies suggests that Egyptian ISPs may have attempted to reinforce their censorship by making circumvention harder.

It’s worth noting that the above chart presents limitations, particularly since it’s determined by the amount and types of websites that were tested as part of this study. If a different sample of websites was tested, the chart would have probably been different. Nonetheless, the aim of this chart is to show which types of sites presented the highest amount of anomalies within the constraints of the specific lists of websites that were tested.

The following sections dive into the four categories of sites (news, human rights, political criticism, and censorship circumvention) that presented the highest ratio of anomalies as part of this study, and which therefore are more likely to have been blocked during the testing and analysis period of this study.

News outlets

Media websites make up the vast majority of the sites that we found to be blocked as part of this study.

Out of the 178 blocked URLs, 111 of them belong to various news outlets. These URLs were tested hundreds of times, and consistently presented a high ratio of HTTP failures throughout the testing period. The full list of blocked news websites, illustrating the amount of times they were tested versus the amount of times they presented HTTP failures, is available here.

The blocked URLs include local Egyptian news outlets, as well as international media websites. These include Mada Masr, Al Jazeera, Rassd News Network, Sasa Post, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Daily News Egypt, Huffington Post Arabic, Al Borsa News, Almesryoon and Masr Al Arabia, among many others. Overall, more than 100 media websites appear to have been blocked throughout the testing period, and this finding is limited to a relatively small sample of media outlets that were tested.

It’s worth noting that we found various Turkish and Iranian news websites to blocked (such as turkpress.co, turk.life and arab-turkey.com for Turkey, and alalam.ir for Iran), suggesting that politics and security concerns may have influenced censorship decisions. The blocked news websites also include a sarcastic website (alahraam.com) and a Qatari-owned news outlet (qtv.qa), among other regional and international news websites.

Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar was blocked following the publication of news involving the resignation of the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence. The site of “Fi Al-fann”, the largest site providing cinema news, was blocked after publishing news about Turki Al Sheikh (an adviser in the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia) beating an Egyptian singer. Cairo 24 news outlet was blocked after publishing a report on the attack on Hisham Genina, one of the opponents of the current regime.

News website Sout Al Omma was temporarily inaccessible in June 2017. Given that OONI measurements show a connection timeout error, the site may have been DDoSed, particularly since Cloudflare couldn’t establish a connection to the backend server of the site. Similarly, a number of other media sites appear to have been temporarily inaccessible throughout the testing period. The latest OONI measurements show that some previously blocked media websites are now accessible (such as Mada Masr), while other news websites (particularly international ones) remain blocked (such as Al Jazeera).

In an attempt to bypass censorship, some of the blocked media websites have used alternative domains, but this hasn’t always been effective. Almesryoon newspaper used the domain elmesryoon.com (instead of almesryoon.com) and recent OONI measurements show that it’s accessible (in the one network where it was tested). Daily News Egypt, on the other hand, used thedailynewsegypt.com domain (instead of dailynewsegypt.com), but this alternative domain appears to have been blocked by Egyptian ISPs as well.

To examine the impact of these censorship events, AFTE interviewed staff members working with some of the Egyptian media organizations whose websites were blocked. Lina Atallah, the Editor in Chief of Mada Masr (which was first blocked in May 2017), says:

“We were working normally and suddenly we could not access the Mada site. At the same time, news appeared on pro-regime websites that a group of websites were blocked. Eventually it became clear that the blockpolicy was a systematic policy and not just affecting a group of websites. We have tried to communicate with various bodies, such as the Journalists Syndicate, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation and the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), and each party denied its responsibility for the blocking. Until now, there is no direct contact with any authority or official body. There is no one who declared responsibility for the block. At the same time, we continue to work and use alternative platforms, such as social networks.”

Employees from Masr Al Arabia were also taken aback by the blocking of their site. Editor Adel Sabri says: “On 24th May 2017, we suddenly saw this campaign on programs on satellite channels demanding websites to be blocked and a piece of news was published on the site of Al Youm Al Sabee newspaper, saying that 21 websites were blocked, including the site of Masr Al Arabia.”

The blocking prevented access for more than 70% of the site’s audience”, says Adel Sabri of Masr Al Arabia. “This has had an economic impact on our operations, with some companies and banks withdrawing their advertisements from our site. The blocking of our site has also resulted in many sources fearing to deal with our journalists.” The latest OONI measurements show that this news website remains blocked in Egypt.

Similarly, the blocking of news website Al Bedaiah had an impact on its audience and on the organization’s operations. Editor in Chief Khalid Al Balashi says: “Our news website was usually read by several thousands a day. After the block, our team produced content that could not be accessed by the vast majority of our audience, which is quite frustrating in general.”

But the circumstances surrounding the blocking of Al Bedaiah were different in comparison to those of other Egyptian news organizations.”I received a call from a colleague working in a newspaper close to the state who told me that there were instructions to attack me. I found an article that insulted me because of an article I did not write,” said Khalid Al Balashi. “When I denied being the author of this article, I received the news from a colleague that the Al Bedaiah site has been blocked.”

Khaled Al Balashi has since filed a complaint with the Syndicate of Journalists and the Supreme Council of Media Regulation in response to the blocking of the site. He says: “After blocking Al Bedaiah, the authorities also blocked the site Masriat, which provides content related to women, moderated by Nefissa Elsabbagh. I think the site was only blocked because the Editor in Chief is my wife, since the site is not political.”

According to Mada Masr’s Lina Attallah, the blocking of media websites can be explained within two contexts: “The first is the general political context which the authorities are trying to limit, and the second is more specific. It is linked to the internet as a virtual space that allows information circulation. I think there is a set of practices by the authorities to contain the open space provided by the internet, and the blocking of websites is part of it.”

Khalid Al Balashi of Al Bedaiah also argues that the blocking of websites is part of a system mentality that does not accept voices that differ from what the authorities say. “The blocks are in line with current state policies, just as they closed civil society organizations, constrained the workers movement, closed public space and obstructed the media.”

Korabia, a news website covering football news locally and internationally, was first blocked in July 2017. According to the site’s editors: “There are more than a hundred journalists, correspondents, and editors who work on the website, and all of them are threatened after we reached a dead end. We entered a dark tunnel again that we don’t see an end to, and we do not know who is responsible for these decisions.” A few months ago, Korabia announced on their official Facebook account that they would be suspending their website. The latest OONI measurements show that Korabia’s site remains blocked, even though its activities have been suspended.

A month later, blocked news website El Badil also announced that they’re not only suspending their website, but also all of their social media platforms and that they will no longer publish any content, whether written or visual. Blocked news outlet Al Bedaiah also suspended its work in recent months, but without an official announcement.

Three lawsuits have been filed in response to the blocking of media websites in Egypt. The first one was filed by Mada Masr, the second was filed by AFTE and the third was filed by the AL-Shurk TV channel. The three lawsuits have been filed before the High Court and sue the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The lawsuits request authorities to explain why their sites were blocked and to disclose which organizations are responsible for the censorship. On 22nd April 2018, Egypt’s High Court rejected Al-Shurk’s lawsuit because the channel is not legally registered (and is therefore not authorised to file a lawsuit). Mada Masr’s and AFTE’s lawsuits are still in process.

Even though Al-Shurk’s lawsuit was rejected, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority disclosed that their website was blocked following a request from The Committee for Monitoring and Regulating the Muslim Brotherhood Group Funds. The request included seizing entities and funds that belong to the group, as well as banning 16 websites, 16 TV channels and the AL-Masreyoon newspaper.

Human rights

OONI measurements suggest that human rights websites have been blocked in Egypt as well.

The following table summarizes the amount of network anomalies that each site presented in comparison to the amount of times that it was tested. The high ratio of anomalies, coupled with the accessibility of those sites from global vantage points, suggests that the sites included in the table below were blocked in Egypt.

URLs Anomalies Amount of times tested
http://www.sinaihr.org

165

210

http://www.qantara.de

161

186

http://liberties.aljazeera.com/

153

196

http://www.ec-rf.org

152

177

http://www.mom-rsf.org

150

177

http://www.jatoeg.org

137

173

https://www.reporter-ohne-grenzen.de

136

151

https://www.sinaihr.org/

122

159

https://www.hrw.org/

116

176

http://www.anhri.net

86

212

The Sinai Organization for Human Rights is an NGO that monitors and documents human rights violations in the Egyptian Sinai region. The blocking of their site may be politically motivated, given the ongoing conflict in the Sinai peninsula between Islamist militants and Egyptian security forces.

Other blocked human rights websites include the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and the Journalists Observatory against Torture. The blocking of Human Rights Watch appears to have started by 1st October 2017, possibly motivated by the publication of a report on torture in Egyptian prisons.

Mohamed Lotfi, the Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), says:

Our website was blocked on the morning of 5th September 2017. We had just launched a campaign and published a report on the incidents of “enforced disappearance” in Egypt, a few days before the block. We tried to deal promptly with the situation and transferred our content to another unblocked server two weeks after the blocking.” According to Lofti: “The authorities have a problem with the circulation of information on the internet and are therefore trying to control it after they have already taken control of traditional media and newspapers. I do not think the authority will succeed in that.”

Political criticism

Various websites and blogs that express political ideas were found to be blocked throughout the testing period.

The following table summarizes the amount of network anomalies that each site presented in comparison to the amount of times that it was tested.

URLs Anomalies Amount of times tested
http://baheyya.blogspot.com

152

212

http://www.manalaa.net

138

207

http://medium.com

86

184

http://ikhwanonline.com/

355

426

http://6april.org

172

205

http://fakartany.com

167

197

http://www.ikhwanonline.com/new/Default.aspx

161

207

http://www.gwady.net

160

198

http://revsoc.me

158

206

One of Egypt’s first blogs – the blog of Manal and Alaa – was amongst the blocked sites. This blog has supported blogging activities since its inception in 2004, hosting other Egyptian blogs and providing technical support when blogging started in Egypt. Another blog offering commentary and analysis of Egyptian politics was amongst those found to be blocked, along with popular blogging platform medium.com and a website discussing a variety of Egyptian political issues.

In 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement sprung as an Egyptian activist group in support of workers who were planning to strike on 6th April. This group has sparked dynamic debates in Egypt, but an Egyptian court banned their activities four years ago. Their site was amongst those found to be blocked, along with another website that shares socialist content.

Think tank fakartany.com appears to be blocked with the usual IP-based rule at approximately the same network location where Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) devices where identified (based on testing from our Raspberry Pi deployments in Egypt). Unlike the other sites, however, it does not trigger RST injection, but packets are just dropped. This may make sense from an engineering standpoint, to put less load on DPI devices, or to block a service at that IP that is not “ordinary” HTTP/HTTPS. This case highlights some variance in terms of the different network filtering rules carried out by Egyptian ISPs.

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