General: GCHR calls for net neutrality and for an end to surveillance of human rights defenders in the MENA region, during events at RightsCon

22.05.18

At RightsCon 2018 in Toronto, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and partners from Access Now, Pshiphon, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Bahrain Watch called for Net neutrality in the MENA region, and an end to the use of surveillance equipment to target human rights defenders.

The concept of net neutrality is about the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular tools, products or websites. However, at a panel on 17 May on the “Impact of the lack of Network Neutrality on Freedom of Expression on the Internet in MENA”, GCHR’s Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim said, “It’s not a commercial issue but it is about human rights. In a region where ISPs are controlled by the governments, it’s impossible to guarantee that everyone will have equal access to the Internet.”

Kristina Stockwood, Chair of GCHR’s Advisory Board, said, “In the MENA region, people are not concerned so much with whether they can stream Netflix or watch YouTube videos, as they are with being able to access the Internet at all and to see content of their choice, particular that shows diverse views, and those contrary to the government.”

She added: “Let's also consider that 60 per cent of the world has no access to the Internet, and of those who do, women are still 50% less likely to be connected to the Internet. This is significant in our region where there's extreme poverty, and women are marginalised. Internet penetration in Yemen, for example, is among the lowest in the world.”

Lucie Krahulcova, Policy Analyst with Access Now, added, “Not only is it important to look at the impact on people on the ground having no access to information on human rights – but they can’t get the info out about violations while they are happening.” Access Now has documented Internet shutdowns in 38 countries, including 10 in the MENA region, such as the prolonged Internet blockage in Duraz in Bahrain, or during protests in Egypt and Iran.

MENA governments are using filtering software to block content in the name of “security;” and national security laws (sometimes called “anti-terror laws”) are being used across the region to imprison human rights defenders, including in Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar – as GCHR has documented extensively.

Keith McManamen, Strategic Analyst at Psiphon, said, “It’s important for people in the tech community to reach out and make sure people in marginalised countries have equal and open access to the Internet, which is a human right.” Hence, the creation of Psiphon, a free, easy to use tool that gets you access to the Internet in one simple step. He noted, “One of the key drivers of Psiphon is the blocking of VOIP services like Viber and WhatsApp” in countries where people can’t even order devices from abroad that have these Apps on them, because they are banned.

When discussing what can be done to help human rights defenders, participants discussed putting pressure on businesses to comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “It’s easier to deal with companies because their business model tells you they might change or shift their practices, so you can push these companies to improve their practices,” said Krahulcova.

At another session on 18 May entitled “Building the anti-spyware toolbox: from reporting to lawsuits”, participants discussed the use of spyware across the region, and named the companies involved.

Both panels discussed the case of prominent blogger, human rights defender, winner of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015 and member of the GCHR Advisory board, Ahmed Mansoor, who is still detained in the UAE for his online activities. “Mansoor has been subjected to a massive spyware operation,” said Ibrahim. Authorities in the UAE used a very advanced software bought for US$634,500 from Hacking Team, an Italian software company, to spy on 1,100 people, by transferring information on cellphones - including Mansoor’s - to a spying device. He was also targeted using Finfisher.

At the anti-spyware session, Danna Ingleton of Amnesty International said, regardless of whether you can prove that these companies directly infected the devices of human rights defenders in the region, “We can prove harm without infection, because the targeting causes harm itself.”

Marc Owen Jones, of Bahrain Watch and Exeter University, noted that not only do human rights defenders like Mansoor and Bahraini rights defenders get targeted by spyware and malware, but those working with them do too, receiving infected messages that purport to be from journalists or people with human rights information, for example. These messages can be obviously suspicious and provide useful info to look at who is doing the targeting.

Nate Cardozo, Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “I believe in naming and shaming these companies.” He proposed a solution: “Let’s sue these companies out of existence.”

GCHR plans to launch a lawsuit against Netsweeper, a Canadian company that has provided the UAE with tools to block many websites including GCHR’s. GCHR’s website has been blocked in the UAE since January 2015 and in Saudi Arabia since December 2014.