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An Arab IGF 2014 session overview by Hiba Abbas Yousif Eltigani
15 December 2014

Note: This session report is posted here as part of IGMENA’s commitment to share the knowledge gained by participants of the Hivos Fellowship Programme with the broader IGMENA community.

Session Title: Openness: Rights and Responsibilities

Date: 27 November 2014

Chair: Haider Fraihat, Director, Technology for Development Division, UN-ESCWA, Lebanon

Moderator: Hanane Boujemi, Internet Governance MENA Programme Manager—Hivos, Netherlands

Speakers:

  • Afef Abrougi, Journalist, Tunisia
  • Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s Head of Policy in the Middle East
  • Hayder Hamzoz, Coordinator of Iraqi Network for Social Media-INSM, IRAQ
  • Suzan Hajj Hobeiche, Chief, Technical Department, Counter Terrorism Unit, Juridical Police, Lebanon

The session’s objective was to discuss the controversial question of where to draw the line between authorities’ censorship for national security purposes and human rights in terms of freedom and accessibility to Internet.

Haider Fraihat introduced the session by talking about openness and how in the new era of the Internet there are two schools of thought emerging on how this can be implemented. One school is advocating for more governmental regulations to control and protect citizens. While the other one calls for more flexibility to use information, as the invisible hand that will eventually, through dynamics do the same thing that currently happens in the economy through prices and competition, self-regulating the Internet. He also explained that the majority of people supported the second school but recently with the increase of crimes and abuse over the Internet, the majority have changed their positions to be more supportive of increasing governmental regulations.

Hanane Boujemi kicked off the discussion by asking Suzan Hajj about the laws that are currently available which respect and support users rights online. Suzan gave a brief introduction about Lebanon’s Counter Terrorism Unit and types of cyber crimes they deal with. She mentioned that there are at least 2,000 attacks per year targeting Lebanese citizens. She indicated crypto locker, cyber sex, phishing, DDoS attacks, cyber-bullying and arms and drugs trafficking are among the top threats reported. She concluded that every day there is a new threat, and even highly skilled technical people are not immune to the threats. She then focused on cases in which bloggers allegedly perform scandals against high profile people. The unit investigates such cases to identify the responsible persons. When the investigation is completed, authorities decide the penalty, whether it is just removal of articles or something more. She personally started to believe that freedom of speech should be guaranteed and scandal cases must be treated under civil law, not criminal law. She gave an overview of the process related to investigation and communication with the U.S. regarding online threats and how this process is very lengthy and can take up to three months. She called for better communication with U.S. authorities and encouraged MENA region governments to increase their levels of engagement in IG policies so that it reflects on national economies while also protecting users. Hanane Boujemi followed by pointing out that although IG is a global issue, there is a lack of awareness and knowledge for all stakeholders in the Arab region.

Journalist Afef Abrougi focused on the right of access and how it should be an absolute right and shouldn’t be compromised by pre-censorship. She also pointed out that cyber crimes and terrorism over the Internet are a reality but the associated laws are vague in a way that can be used to limit freedom of expression. Yes, there is a need for laws to fight cyber crimes and terrorism, but these laws must be good, effective, and transparent. Any censorship, if necessary, must be based on transparent laws and with a clear process for appealing. She added that research by a U.K. organization found that censorship is not really effective in fighting terrorism because it pushes these groups underground, which is against the public benefit. Therefore, the best way forward to fight such groups is freedom of expression by which society will be able to discuss their thoughts and shame them for any cruel ideologies. It also means engaging civil society in the fight, which will result in less support for such groups. Afef also proposed the “burden of proof” concept as a tool to preserve freedom of expression because then the person claiming damage to his reputation must prove this damage.

Along the same lines, Hayder Hamzoz from INSM talked about current laws in Iraq and pointed out the broad definitions in some laws that leave them vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. As civil society, they also managed through cooperation with parliament to modify cyber crime laws by engaging into discussions with all stakeholders. He mentioned the case of Internet filtering to suppress IS news as a case study that showed how filtering can backfire and result in more panic for the public. When another approach was used, in which fabricated information posted by IS was countered with facts, the result was much better. He also highlighted cases in which online activities conflicted with traditional rules and local authorities and how the outcome was against people online rights. He concluded by advocating for more awareness within society to prevent infringements to people’s rights on the Internet.

Hanane Boujemi asked Haider Fraihat about how to strike a the balance between preserving people’s rights and freedoms and protecting national security. He thinks that we are currently operating between two extremes: either total openness that relies only on people’s internal conscience or total regulations for every aspect. He believes that neither is the solution; instead we should engage in on-going discussion that includes everyone.

The last panellist to comment was Ashraf Zeitoon from Facebook. He commented on how Facebook as an interactive platform gives its users the choice to determine what’s important to them through interactions with others in very open and connected environment. This doesn’t eliminate the need for guidelines about the content; these guidelines are very clear and transparent. Facebook also listens to users’ needs and that’s why in some cases, the company has modified its guidelines to accommodate changes.

Audience members engaged in the discussion by focusing on the need of governments to acknowledge human rights online and to use their resources to empower and develop local community instead of using it to buy suppression tools. Additionally, awareness about human rights issues must be built to make sure that parliaments and cabinets take them into account when creating legislation. Moreover, there is a need for more transparency from big companies like Facebook and Google. The session ended by emphasizing an understanding that communication channels between all stakeholders must be kept open for our community to move forward.

Hiba Abbas Yousif Eltigani was a fellow selected by Hivos to represent civil society from the MENA region at Arab IGF 2014.

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