Piecemeal Restrictions A Threat to Internet Freedom in Egypt
Last week, an Egyptian administrative court ordered mandatory blocking of internet sites in an attempt to prevent pornography. The court’s ruling is broad and vague. To attempt to justify the ruling, the court cites Egypt’s religious nature and its “traditions, morals and ethics.” As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has recognized, child pornography is one clear exception to the rule that the internet should enable people to seek and impart information without restriction. But any such restriction must be “sufficiently precise” and include “effective safeguards against misuse or against abuse or misuse, including oversight and review by an independent and impartial tribunal or regulatory body.” Egypt’s court order fails these simple tests. It is likely to result in the blocking of legitimate content, as has happened in other jurisdictions where similar bans have been adopted. The regulator overseeing this policy is also compromised: the ruling military council, which has full control, has exercised its authority over the telecommunications and internet sector in an arbitrary, politicized, and nontransparent way. The overthrow of President Mubarak last year has not altered the legal framework governing the operation of the communications and internet technology sector, and the composition of the regulatory body, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, ensures executive branch—especially security sector—domination of the industry. The court ruling may lead to further restrictions. Preserving Egypt’s traditions and religious nature could be used as the pretext for all kinds of restrictions should Egyptian legislators or constitution drafters choose to move in that direction. Egypt needs to move in the opposite direction. Mubarak’s takedown of the internet was the desperate act of a dying regime, but it highlighted the country’s vulnerability to politically motivated restrictions. It also galvanized both business and civil society to urge reform and sparked a brief but promising period of consultation. The government should return to the recommendations made by Egyptian civil society organizations and other stakeholders last summer and develop a new regulatory framework that provides necessary safeguards while also protecting freedom of expression and the rights of users. Meanwhile, Egypt’s allies, like the United States, should stress the importance of communications law reform as a marker for progress on democratic transition. There is a nascent consensus in Egypt about the way forward, but that needs to be supported through broader diplomatic efforts. It would be ironic and damaging to the transition if Egypt’s overthrow of the Mubarak regime led to even more restrictive internet policy.