General: The lack of network neutrality and the human rights crisis in MENA region

23.06.18

This post was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries.

Network Neutrality: Definition

The concept of network 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. In general ISPs have to treat all the net data equally regardless of its source, type, size, or destination.

Net Neutrality in MENA region

Traditional media in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa are owned by governments, or pro-government individuals or groups that are often directly linked to the security services. For many decades this type of media has been heavily used to promote authorities, improve their image and mask oppressive policies which are based on the confiscation of public freedoms - including prohibiting the publication of other opinions that are opposite to what the authorities adopt. Therefore, citizens and civil society activists rushed to use the Internet, and in particular social media websites and blogs, to express their views about issues that are related to social justice, ending corruption and other important issues. Governments and their security forces were always present on the Net putting their unlimited resources not only to act contrary to the principles of Net neutrality but also moving fast to own directly or indirectly the telecommunication companies that are acting as ISPs for citizens. We witness in recent years a massive interference by authorities in the work of ISPs in order to suit a policy of silencing civil society activists in addition to employ Internet troll armies to monitor all kinds of civil activities on the Net. Then, when the authorities sensed the size of the widespread support enjoyed by Internet activists, they enacted cybercrime laws that are specifically designed to target activists and stop their online activities. 

However, in view of the rapid growth of Internet users in recent years as shown in the above table, in which the percentage of Internet users in the Middle East alone until the end of 2017 reached approximately 64.5%, governments have invested millions of US$ and imported the latest hardware and software, in cooperation with Western companies, to fully eliminate the concept of Net neutrality in our region. By doing so the human rights crisis intensified and freedom of expression on the Net was put at imminent risk.

Network Disruption and Discrimination

Typically, across the MENA region network, disruption is a common practice in which end users lose connection to the Net during general protests similar to what happened in some countries during the so-called Arab spring in 2011 and the civil protests that took place across the region in the years after. No doubt it’s a big threat to democracy and the rule of law. Also, online surveillance and selective filtering of information over networks by authorities using the most sophisticated technologies is common practice across the region. Thousands of websites are blocked, including many related to the documentation of violations committed by regional governments. The website of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is blocked in Saudi Arabia since December 2014 and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since January 2015. It’s surprising that a Canadian company “Netsweeper” has provided the UAE with tools to block many websites including ours. GCHR plans to lodge a lawsuit against Netsweeper in the near future as we believe that it’s in the very heart of the obligations of Western countries to put human rights always before profit.

Targeting Internet activists

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 has been sentenced on 29 May 2018 to 10 years in prison following an unfair trial in Abu Dhabiin the UAE for his online peaceful activities, has been subjected to a massive spyware operation. 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 cellphone’s - including Mansoor’s - to a spying device. He was also targeted using Finfisher. The story was reported on by big media outlets including the New York Times.

It’s unfair that we have two tiers of connection in many countries across the region whereby officials including security forces and rich individuals have access to high-speed Internet while most disadvantaged areas have no income to survive and as such it’s obvious that they either have no access to the Internet or they will be given very slow service to the Net.

Based on reliable reports received by GCHR, on certain occasion when there is an important human rights report or a new article that documents human rights violations, governments often use temporary blocking or make the Internet very slow by reducing the number of the gateways that connect the national Internet to the rest of the world, in order to reduce awareness of the population about the serious affairs in their countries.

This forms a direct blow to the principles of Net neutrality and contributes to the ongoing human rights crisis in the region. While some scholars think that the adoption of network neutrality is not a burning issue in the MENA region, we believe strongly that the implementation of the concept of network neutrality across our countries will lift restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet and will help to educate people about their rights and obligations, in addition to protecting Internet activists - many of whom are in prison such as Nabeel Rajab, Raif Badawi, and Osama Al-Najjar - and will lead to long awaited change aimed at building a society that respects human rights.

Dialogue sessions

The healthy discussion continued during a GCHR's session entitled “The Impact of the lack of Network Neutrality on Freedom of Expression on the Internet in MENA region” which was held on 17 May 2018 during the recent  #RightsCon  gathering. Also, the GCHR participated in another session on entitled “Building the anti-spyware toolbox: from reporting to lawsuits”, in which participants discussed the use of spyware across the region, and named the companies involved.