Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression

Companies play a major role in delivering telecommunication and internet services to citizens. Therefore, it is important to explain the contexts in which these companies operate, in terms of their relations with both countries and internet users. The accusations levelled by the Egyptian Public Prosecution in what was known in local media as “TikTok cases” had to do with at least three applications, namely Instagram, which is owned by the American company Facebook and the Public Prosecution uses officially to address citizens[1]; TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance; and Likee, which is owned by the Chinese company BIGO Technology Ltd.

The Public Prosecution considered TikTok and Likee as a scene of crimes against the Egyptian family values, and a means for human trafficking, because of which the content creators were prosecuted. We are trying to address the legal conditions of the operation of the companies that own the two applications in Egypt, the policies adopted by these companies, the Egyptian government’s position towards them, and how far the Chinese government, known for its suppression of human rights, is involved in these cases.

TikTok

TikTok is a video sharing platform aiming to enhance creativity and spread entertainment[2]. It has 11 head offices around the world, including one in the Middle East, based in Dubai[3]. The application allows its users to post videos of no more than 60 seconds, in 75 languages, ​​in 150 countries[4]. But in early 2020, the name of the platform was repeatedly mentioned in a context different from entertainment, after a number of its users were arrested on the grounds of threatening Egyptian family values.

The Egyptian Public Prosecution did not level any charges against the company that owns TikTok or any of its employees. ByteDance advertised the post of Live Partnership Manger in Egypt, following the security clampdown on TikTok users. The Live Partnership Manager works to build long-term relationships with the government to support the company’s work, and the applicant must have an in-depth knowledge of Egyptian local laws and policies, according to the job description published on the official website of ByteDance[5].

TikTok is one of the widely used platforms in Egypt. The number of its users in the country reached 7.2 million in 2019[6]. The application management tried to support this popularity in various forms. For example, the Cairo International Film Festival introduced TikTok as one of the official sponsors of its 40th edition[7]. Moreover, the Ministry of State for Emigration and Egyptian Expatriates’ Affairs officially cooperated with TikTok to launch two campaigns, in 2019 and 2020, as an easy-to-spread and wide-impact communication channel[8]. After a number of TikTok users were prosecuted, director of TikTok content operations in North Africa Hany Kamel stated in September 2020 that the company was about to complete the legal procedures required for opening an office in Egypt.

According to the terms of service published on the official website of TikTok, these terms constitute a legally binding agreement between the user and the company. Accordingly, the user becomes solely responsible (to the company and to others) for the activity that occurs on their account. At the same time, the company does not bear any responsibility related to any content provided by the user. TikTok also reserves the right to disable the user account at any time, including if the user has failed to comply with any of the provisions of these terms, or if activities occur on the user account which, in the company’s sole discretion, would or might cause damage to or impair the services or infringe or violate any third party rights, or violate any applicable laws or regulations[9].

Five months ago, the TikTok content manager said the accounts of Haneen Hossam and Mawaddah al-Adham, who were under pretrial detention at the time, were still active and operating normally and did not contain any “suspicious” video clips, after carefully reviewing them. The content manager confirmed that the Public Prosecution had not levelled any charges against the digital platform[10]. Nevertheless, the platform administration announced that it would review all accounts after the Public Prosecution began interrogating the content creators who use the platform.

TikTok confirms that its usage guidelines comply with “the customs and traditions of each society separately”. It designated four local teams staffed by Egyptians and Arabs to review all posted content. The platform uses artificial intelligence technology to ensure that all posted videos do not violate “the society customs and values​​”, provided that the video will be immediately deleted if proven otherwise, and its owner will be warned that their account will be blocked in case they violated the general guidelines again[11]. This did not happen in the case of Hossam, Al-Adham, or other content creators accused in TikTok cases, as some of them had already been sentenced to prison terms, and Al-Adham and Ahmed Sameh were also fined 300,000 EGP each on charges of publishing indecent videos[12].

The company that owns TikTok is operating freely in Egypt, where the broad base of millions of Egyptian users, which has been formed since the platform was launched in 2016[13], has created a form of official cooperation between the Egyptian government and the owner company. Meanwhile, TikTok users are prosecuted under the pretext of infringing on family values, despite the confirmation by TikTok officials that the accused users did not violate the publishing policies.

Likee

Likee was the platform that had to do with accusing Hossam and Al-Adham of human trafficking. The platform is owned by the Chinese company BIGO Technology Ltd, which is based in Singapore. The company has 20 offices around the world, including three in the Middle East and North Africa[14]. One of these offices is in New Cairo, Egypt, which makes it subject to Egyptian laws, mainly including Investment Law No. 72 of 2017, meaning that the office should have a company register and a tax card. The office has 400 employees, including foreigners with permits to work in Egypt[15].

Likee is distinguished with its live broadcast feature, which enables users to obtain money for the entertainment videos they publish, in the event that the number of their followers and fans increases. This is what Hossam said in her video, which was used as a piece of evidence in accusing her of human trafficking. She said that she was going to establish an agency affiliated with Likee called “Haram Masr”. She invited girls over 18 to join it so they could obtain a salary ranging from $36 to $3,000 by creating accounts on the app and opening the live broadcast for a minimum of 30 hours per month, without having to wear “indecent clothes”, in order to get to know users and make friends with them[16].

Days after Hossam was arrested, Head of Middle East, North Africa and Europe at BIGO Technology Ltd Jackson Liu said only users are responsible for the content they post on the company-owned apps, and the content does not express the company’s point of view. He emphasized that the user experience on the company’s applications is compatible with the Egyptian and Arab cultures, which prompted the company to monitor the published content to ensure that it does not conflict with “national laws and policies”[17].

Liu’s remarks reflect inconsistency between the company’s policies and its announced statements. On the one hand, it disclaims responsibility for the user content, and on the other hand it says that it monitors the published content. Most likely, this statement was made to avoid legal accountability in Egypt.

The police arrested a number of Likee employees in Egypt to question them over human trafficking charges. They included the company’s regional manager in the Middle East Liu Rutian, the company’s general manager in Egypt Lyn Roebing, Likee executive director in Egypt Moamen Hassan Saad, the company’s coordinator and translator in Egypt Mohamed Alaa El-Din, the director of live broadcasting agencies in the Middle East Mohamed Abdel-Hamid Zaki, the web programming technician Ahmed Salah Mohamed Desouki, and the app’s advertising manager Mohamed Mahgoub.

On 26 April 2020, Liu Rutian was interrogated in the presence of his interpreter and a representative from the Chinese embassy in Cairo. Rutian faced charges of joining an organized criminal group for the purposes of human trafficking through dealing in natural persons, taking advantage of their need for money with the intention of exploiting them in prostitution by participating by agreement and incitement with Haneen Hossam. The victims identified by the prosecution were two girls, one of whom was under the age of 18. The two girls were accused of announcing through social media accounts an invitation to draw attention to prostitution and calling for immoral encounters between subscribers, something which is considered an infringement on the Egyptian family values.

Prosecutors asked Rutian about his company’s work mechanism and its applications, including Likee, where the crime under investigation occurred. Rutian explained the general way of use and interaction between the app subscribers and the so-called broadcasters, or those who lead the live broadcast. He also explained the mechanism of earning money and the reasons for the content creators (influencers) to obtain a financial return.

Although the prosecution must be committed to Article 57 of the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy, it asked Rutian more than once whether the company monitored the private chats of users to make sure that they do not violate public morals. Rutian confirmed that the company does not monitor private chats because this contravenes its commitment to the protection of privacy.

The Public Prosecution also interrogated the company’s coordinator and translator in Egypt Mohamed Alaa El-Din, who explained in detail the mechanism for users to obtain money for their content. He said this mechanism is encouraged by the company to increase the number of those who interact with the new live broadcast feature. According to Alaa El-Din, the company contracts with active users as creators of virtual agencies – as is the case with Haneen Hossam – with the aim of directing users to the new feature, in exchange for the agency’s owner to receive 20% of the total money that goes to subscribers.

More specifically, a contracting agent like Haneen Hossam nominates a number of content creators to the company that owns Likee, so they obtain the privilege of using the live broadcast feature on the app. Then, the company tests the nominees, and after they pass the tests, the company accepts them as content creators. When the points or “diamonds” that followers give to the content creators reach a certain threshold, the content creator gets a financial return according to the contract concluded with the company. Alaa El-Din said that this process is carried out within a framework of monitoring imposed by the company on all users of the new broadcast feature, to avoid any form of violation of the app’s rules.

Despite the interrogation of a number the owner company employees, the company’s general manager has not been referred to trial, unlike three Egyptian employees, namely Mohamed Alaa El-Din, Mohamed Abdel-Hamid Zaki, and Ahmed Salah Desouki, who were referred to trial on charges of helping Haneen Hossam and Mawaddah al-Adham to commit the crime of human trafficking, by “granting them Likee membership and enabling them to create a special group to invite girls to subscribe in the application, so the crime occurred”.

The Public Prosecution ignored the fact that all the content posted on Likee and the money allocated to content creators are part of BIGO Ltd’s activity. The company’s activity is governed by Investment Law No. 72 of 2017, whose Article 92 stipulates: “Subject to the provisions of civil liability, in the cases where a crime is committed in the name of and for the account of a private legal person, the individual in charge of actual management shall not be subject to any penalty unless he is proven to have been aware of the crime and to have directed his will towards the commitment of such crime to secure an interest for himself or for others. In the event the liability of the natural person is not established in the manner specified in the previous paragraph, the legal person shall be liable to a fine no less than four times and no more than ten times the legally prescribed fine for the crime. In case of reoccurrence of the crime, a judgment shall be passed terminating the license or dissolving the legal person, as the case may be. The judgment shall be published in two widely-circulating newspapers at the legal person’s expense.”

Therefore, the investigation authorities did not deal with BIGO Ltd as a legal person bearing criminal liability, in light of the contractual agreement between the company and Hossam, the owner of the virtual agency. BIGO Ltd continued its operation in Egypt normally. Most likely, the Chinese authorities’ interference contributed to granting the company this status. On 30 August 2020, the Chinese ambassador in Cairo visited the Public Prosecutor’s office where he discussed the interrogation of Hossam. The Public Prosecution’s statement issued after that meeting said the Chinese ambassador confirmed BIGO Ltd’s understanding of the crime committed by Hossam, and that “the Chinese company adheres to all Egyptian legal procedures and the customs and traditions of the Egyptian society”[18]. In the same meeting, the Chinese ambassador said the company learned from investigations of the acts that constitute a crime under Egyptian law, and therefore it will review in the future what is published on its platform. Meanwhile, Public Prosecutor Hamada al-Sawy said the Public Prosecution had differentiated between individual liability and company liability, so it did not take any precautionary measures against the company.

It seems that diplomatic considerations in Egypt-China relations have influenced the course of investigations, as the acts that the Public Prosecution insists to deal with as crimes are part of the Chinese company’s activities, and the company’s employees are responsible for these acts by virtue of their work in the company. However, the company’s activity is not criminalized and not subject to investigation. The response that the Egyptian authorities might have got from the Chinese company is that the latter imposed censorship on the content provided by Egyptian citizens on Likee, according to the restrictions set by the Public Prosecution, to prevent the existence of content creators who might have strong influence on the public.

In the end, it becomes clear that the Egyptian and Chinese official stances against human rights helped the Egyptian authorities to restrict freedom of digital expression, since the apps owned by Chinese companies do not adhere to the same basic human rights standards applied in Europe and North America.

Controlling social media apps

The Egyptian authorities are still unable to take full control of social media apps, as the majority of companies that own these apps are not committed to the current government’s internet policy. It can be said that the Egyptian authorities are seeking to establish their control at two levels. The first is related to monitoring content and subsequently blocking accounts and prosecuting users. The other level is related to the financial gains that arise from digital activity.

In 2017, MP Gamal al-Uqbi, who is a member of the political bureau of the Egypt Support Coalition, announced his intention to submit a briefing request to parliament regarding the necessity of issuing a law to compel social media platforms, such as Facebook, to force all Egyptian users to create their accounts using their national IDs and providing their addresses in order to identify each user[19]. There was a similar attempt in 2005, when the Egyptian police threatened to close internet cafés if their owners did not record their customers’ names and ID numbers[20]. The lawmaker’s proposal did not work, given Facebook’s commitment to protecting privacy.

In late 2018, the minister of finance announced a plan to draft a law to impose taxes on Facebook ads and social media platforms, in order to guarantee the state’s right and to boost public funds[21]. Although the law was not passed, and government communication with the American company was not officially disclosed, the Facebook administration announced its plan to impose a tax of up to 18% of the value of advertising services in Egypt. Meanwhile, the Tax Authority confirmed, in 2020, that Facebook and YouTube ads would be subject to a value added tax (VAT)[22].

Companies that own social media apps have a responsibility to protect freedom of digital expression and user privacy. If companies abide by this responsibility, it will be more difficult for governments to control social media apps. This is something that the Egyptian government has begun to work on. This includes the introduction of a package of laws to restrict digital activity, as well as selective prosecution, as is the case in TikTok trials.

[1] Egyptian Public Prosecution announces its official account on Instagram, 25 November 2019, last visited on 10 May 20121, link: https://www.facebook.com/ppo.gov.eg/posts/2605523456222207

[2] ByteDance’s official website, Products page, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://www.bytedance.com/en/products

[3] TikTok’s official website, About Us page, last visited on 15 May 2021, link: https://www.tiktok.com/about?lang=en

[4] Al-Mal, After the success of TikTok… is Egypt eligible to develop entertainment apps online? 22 July 2019, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/3vVACPp

[5] ByteDance’s official website, Jobs page, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://jobs.bytedance.com/en/position/6873686883051391240/detail

[6] Al-Masry al-Youm, Hideout of teenagers… 7.2 million Egyptians enter the world of TikTok, 14 October 2019, last visited on 15 May 2021, link: https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/1434414

[7] Cairo International Film Festival, 2018, We’re happy to introduce TikTok, Facebook, 14 November 2018, link: https://bit.ly/3bMYyNp

[8] Al-Watan, Emigration ministry launches a campaign on TikTok to promote the presidential initiative “Speak Arabic” regionally and globally, 18 December 2020, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://cutt.ly/4bDzN7v

[9] TikTok’s official website, Terms of service page, last updated in February 2020, last visited on 15 May 2021, link: https://www.tiktok.com/legal/terms-of-service?lang=en

[10] Al-Mal, TikTok does not violate modesty … accounts of Haneen Hossam and Mawaddah al-Adham are still active, 13 September 2020, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/3wcXRET

[11] Op.cit.

[12] Al-Shorouk, details of the verdict that acquitted Haneen Hossam and Mawaddah al-Adham in the case of infringing on the values ​​of society, 12 January 2021, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/3tLEiSs

[13] Op.cit.

[14] Al-Mal, BIGO disavows accusations levelled against student Haneen Hossam on Likee, 23 April 2020, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/3w3R8Np

[15] Mohamed Tariq, Mada Masr, From Likee to prison: Convicted of infringing on “the morals of the state”, 13 October 2020, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/33DMDwN

[16] Op. cit.

[17] Op. cit.

[18] Al-Masry al-Youm, What did the Public Prosecutor and the Chinese ambassador discuss regarding Haneen Hossam? And what is the link between BIGO and the accusations? 31 August 2020, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/2024406

[19] Youm7, “Facebook by ID” … MPs propose a new law compelling social media users to register their IDs and addresses… another proposal calls on the Ministry of Interior to designate a website to receive citizens’ reports, 4 March 2017, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/3ok3Gxz

[20] ANHRI, Egypt: Increasing curb over internet usage harassments against net cafés should immediately end, 23 February 2005, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: http://www.anhri.net/en/reports/2005/pr0223.shtml

[21] Youm7, Five parliamentary ideas for collecting taxes on Facebook and social media ads… Deducting them from the source according to the rates imposed on newspapers and TV stations … and introducing the digital tax system, 2 January 2019, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/2QfviY0

[22] Masrawy, Tax Authority: Facebook and YouTube ads are subject to value-added tax (document), 21 September 2020, last visited on 10 May 2021, link: https://bit.ly/3uEhEg0

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Legislative context

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Analysis of the Public Prosecution discourse

Analysis of the Public Prosecution discourse

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Reading in Tiktok cases papers

Reading in Tiktok cases papers

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