Statement opposing Egypt’s legalization of website blocking and communications surveillance
Read in: Arabic
We, the undersigned, call for the immediate repeal of the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law (“The Cybercrime Law”), as well as the review and reform of articles on internet surveillance and blocking of websites in the law on the regulation of the press and media (“The Media Regulation Law”).
The Cybercrime Law and the Media Regulation Law are only the latest steps in the Egyptian government’s attempt to impose full control over the flow of information online, as part of an effort to close the space for public debate and prevent the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. These actions must be opposed in order to defend Egyptians’ human rights.
On 18 August, 2018, President Sisi ratified the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law (Cybercrime Law). The Egyptian parliament had already approved the law on 5 July, granting the government new powers to restrict digital rights and interfere with activists’ freedoms online. Only last month, the parliament also passed another dangerous law (the Media Regulation Law) that would place under government regulation and supervision as member of the media anyone with a social media account that has more than 5,000 followers.
Egyptian authorities have a recent history of escalating attempts to restrict online freedoms. On 24 May 2017, Egypt began to block websites, mostly media related, on a mass scale; the number of blocked websites so far totals more than 500. Apart from an order to block 33 websites issued by the government committee that appraised and seized the funds of members of a banned Muslim Brotherhood group, it is unclear on what basis the other websites have been blocked. No decision has been published, whether by the courts or government departments, and no reasons have been provided as to why those websites ought to be blocked. Numerous attempts have been made to get the government to disclose the legal basis for blocking, and a number of lawsuits have been filed before the administrative judiciary.
Now, the ratification of the Cybercrime Law appears to be an attempt by the government to legalize the repressive steps it took more than a year ago, providing full authority for internet censorship.
The Cybercrime Law also authorizes the mass surveillance of communications in Egypt. Under the law, ISPs are required to keep and store customer usage data for a period of 180 days, including data that enables user identification, data regarding content of the information system, and data related to the equipment used. This means that ISPs have the data related to all user activities, including phone calls and text messages, websites visited, and applications used on smartphones and computers. The National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) can also issue an administrative decision obliging telecommunications companies to save “other data” without specifying what it is, and without stipulating it in the law.
National security entities (defined by the law as: Presidency, Armed Forces, Ministry of the Interior, General Intelligence, and Administrative Control Authority) were also granted the right to access and review the data referred to in the preceding paragraph. ISPs are also obliged to provide the “technical capabilities” to those entities.
This approach to impose mass surveillance on all users in Egypt is contrary to Article 57 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states: “Private life is inviolable, safeguarded and may not be infringed upon. Telegraph, postal, and electronic correspondence, telephone calls, and other forms of communication are inviolable, their confidentiality is guaranteed, and they may only be confiscated, examined or monitored by causal judicial order, for a limited period, and in cases specified by the law.” Egypt has also signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and must follow the guidance of the Human Rights Committee, the only official body charged with interpreting the treaty.
In addition, the law regulating the work of the press and media, the Media Regulation Law, which the President ratified on September 1, 2018, expands the power to censor individuals’ personal accounts on social media, if the account has at least 5,000 followers. The Supreme Media Regulatory Council has the right to block those accounts if it believes that they publish or broadcast false news, incite a violation of the law, violence or hatred, discriminate between citizens, or advocate racism or intolerance.
Call to action
The Cybercrime Law and the Media Regulation Law threaten the fundamental rights of Egyptians. They are overbroad, disproportionate attempts to give the government full control over cyberspace. Therefore, to protect Egyptians’ human rights, preserve the public domain, and keep open any space for exercising freedom of expression, the undersigned call on the Egyptian government to immediately repeal the Cybercrime Law and reform the Media Regulation Law.