As the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology is paving the way to block access to adult online content, what has been revealed about the real implementation of things appears to be worse than expected, Issa Mahasneh explains in this blog post.
Even if we suppose the Bona Fide of our government in regards of blocking pornography, it seems like they're doing it wrong.
"Almost everything is blocked by default, from Google search to Facebook"
The Ministry of ICT picked the Australia-based "The Cyber Guardian" (TCG) company, for its porn-filtering software to be used in Jordan. TCG's own programs have very strict rules on access to Internet for their users, for example, search engines, social networking sites, proxy server sites, file-sharing websites and programs and most web browsers are blocked by default. TCG uses as well a custom search engine, that displays results from only a white-listed database of web sites. "We have our own search engine, and it only searches from what's in our database." TCG founder Max Thomas said in an interview.
TCG looks like they are proud that their software is blocking basic Internet users' rights, their software, for instance, does not allow people to download web browsers, "if a child goes to an internet cafe and downloads a different browser onto a USB, Cyber Guardian terminates the application when it is inserted into the home computer", revealed Thomas.
"Our system could not be circumvented", he added.
The worst nightmare: Filtering at ISP-level
So, TCG is a fierce and invulnerable filtering software. It should not be a big problem if this software is used at homes, and parents are not willing to allow their children to use search engines, download browsers or spending time on social media websites. But, what will happen if a similar system is installed on an ISP and all the Internet users are gone through similar filtering mechanisms?
Well, that's what the Jordanian government would do. The Ministry made clear that TCG's software will be installed by ISPs in Jordan, meaning that anything you try to watch and any website you try to visit, will be first scanned, then filtered by your Internet provider, and in the only case the website is white-listed you can have access to its content.
Generally speaking, net-filtering on the ISP level is bad, at JOSA we always tried to push for end user solutions in which you have the power to control access to Internet at your home, without having the eyes of government and telecommunication companies on you, and without giving them the opportunity to surveil what you do and what you visit from your PC.
In order to make it clear that a software that runs on an ISP is really a bad choice, we can list some issues with these programs:
- They have access to see what you write and what you see when you surf the web.
- They provide a list of website that you are allowed to visit, or a blacklist of content that you are not. Remember, that you have no power to change this list and -remember- since Jordanian government will provide the piece of software, you can easily imagine what it will end with.
- Since we have no idea of the real intentions of the software manufacturers, we could consider that the system might be used for other purposes like collecting data or logging personal information of users. Remember, the government selected software is not open source, so we cannot discover what it really does, and most relevant, it is hosted on ISP's infrastructure, you have no control to modify it or turn it off.
On another side, we find it weird that the government is pushing for this specific piece of software, there was no public tender, no detailed requirements and a no transparency at all with the whole issue. It is even weirder what has been said about the software given away for the Jordanian government for free, further investigations should be taken by government and third parties to make sure the manufactures have no backdoors in the software code and they (i.e the software company) are not going to benefit financially by the system in both illegal ways (as mentioned before) or by a possible future vendor lock-in or paid updates.
In general, our recommendation to the Jordanian government is not to use any kind of ISP-level filtering mechanism, parental control SHOULD be done on the end-user level.
Opt-out is worse than opt-in
The ministry also revealed they will force ISPs to opt-out porn block; this means Internet will be filtered by default, but consenting adults can opt-out of the filter.
It is important to mention that the UK government was trying to apply a similar filtering scheme, the UK example was heavily promoted and publicized by anti-pornography activists in Jordan last year, but last December, Her Majesty's ministers have rejected all these plans to automatically block internet access to pornography on all computers, saying the move is not widely supported and citing the high risks from 'over-blocking'.
Over-blocking and under-blocking, together with some other technical issues, are some of the reasons why the Jordan Open Source Association rejected the draft Telecommunications law, in addition to our concerns related to government infringement on civil liberties and freedom of speech.
Since the Internet is unfiltered by default, having a "safe" filtered Internet could be considered to be an added value or service, Filtering costs money, resources and time, logically, it is not offered for free, this is the main reason ISPs provide (and charge for) safe internet as an added service. Opt-out might end to the opposite in Jordan, with people that just want 'untreated', from the source, Internet to pay for that, as it has already been exposed by local media.
At JOSA, we promoted parental responsibility, with parents controlling what their children see online. We also suggested that ISPs should provide safe Internet free-of-charge and we invited the government to take serious steps on instructing parents on the use of freely-available parental control software. As far as we can see, the government chose a different, clearly wrong, way of dealing with the matter.
The Ministry of ICT is redacting a new Telecommunications Law that implies blocking access to pornography, but the biggest issue is not that, the law allows government to issue regulations to access online content based on their own criteria. Issa Mahasneh shows how Jordanian government will try to mix the two things to attack any opposition to the new law.
It was April 2012, when the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology first revealed a government-tailored plan to introduce blocking pornographic sites within the Kingdom, backed by a dozen of activists who pushed for cutting access to such sites for "moral issues" and following wide and powerful media campaigns to sympathize Jordanians of the benefits of such a "puritanical" move.
However, the Savonarola-style Bonfire of the Vanities never took place, adult websites are still accessible, but the government was smartly able to establish a popular consensus around Internet censorship, pathing the way to the ratification of a liberticide Press Law which explicitly allows blocking any website declared "illegal" by the government.
Surprisingly, one year later, the Ministry is preaching for a new anti-pornography crusade, this time by pushing critical amendments to the Telecommunications Law, that not only ask ISPs to block adult websites, but allows government to set regulations to control access to Internet.
It is important to know the draft law has two articles interfering with Internet Freedom and legalize blocking the Internet:
- The first, 6.B (bis), gives the power to the Council of Ministers to issue a set of regulations to "regularize access to content on public networks (i.e. the Internet)", there are no really explicit conditions on these regulations, which hypothetically give the government the power to block sites at their will based on their own regulations (and without a court trial).
- The second, 61 (bis), requires ISPs to block access to pornographic materials on public networks, based on regulations issued by the council of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (another government body), even here without any requirement from the law itself.
As it was done for the Press Law, I highly expect the government will try, and might succeed, to confuse people with this binomial government control, publicizing anti-pornography but with having the first article in mind, which -as explained- gives full control to block Internet content by government.
The last year, a big part of the society was mixing between blocking pornography and censorship imposed by the Press Law, which resulted in Internet Freedom activists to be misleadingly attacked for being unethical, irreligious and lobbying for the porn industry. The government successfully created this public conception, and it is trying to apply the same old plan again. Any resistance to the draft Telecommunications Law will be faced with out-of-topic reference to pornography, both by government and by anti-pornography activists, although the real issue is not that part of the law, the catastrophe is indeed Article 6.B.
As the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is working on a draft for the new Telecommunications Law, new threats to Internet Freedom in Jordan appear. Mohammad Tarakiyee writes here specifically about the proposed Article 6.B-bis of the draft law.
The year 2012 was a horrible year for digital rights and free press in Jordan. The passing of the draconian Press and Publications law and extending its jurisdiction to include online news websites gave the government unprecedented powers to control and censor websites it deems unlawful, made it difficult to start a news website, and practically made it impossible for these websites to allow free comments on its websites. So far the law has not been applied yet, which gave us Internet activists in Jordan a glimmer of hope. News that members of the new Parliament gave a memorandum to the government asking for the Press and Publications law to be appealed gave us more hope.
However, my own hopes were dashed when I read the draft of a new Telecommunications law (link content in Arabic). The Press and Publications law was bad, it was the first attempt by our government to systematically censor the Internet, but at least it targeted censoring individual websites. According to the law draft, article 6 (b) gives the government sweeping powers to dictate guidelines that censor entire categories of websites if they wish. This clause alone can cripple free access to Information and Free Speech, both rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Article 6 (b) of the Telecomunications Law draft states, “(The Telecom Regulatory Commission has to) regulate access to content through public communications networks according to regulation set by the council of ministers for this purpose, as long as these regulations are limited to cases where the content is forbidden or restricted according to Jordanian law.”
First of all, the article does not fit in this law. The purpose of the Telecommunications law is to regulate telecoms and protect consumer rights, not to dictate and supervise what content they should be allowed to access. Secondly, the fact that “illegal” content exists on the Internet does not justify this article, Jordanian laws already apply in the cyberspace, and this particular issue is handled in the Cyber Crimes law (2010) and the unfortunate Press and Publications law of 1998, and it’s revisions.
That’s not to mention the biggest issue with this article, we simply do not want censorship over the Internet in Jordan. Jordanians made that clear with the 7oryanet campaign in 2012, and the Online Press Freedom Tent, yet the government insists on increasing it’s censorship powers. It infringes on our constitutional right to the free access to Information, and our right to free speech. It infringes also on our right to secret communication by forcing ISPs to monitor our Internet usage to make such censorship feasible.
Speaking of feasibility such censorship is highly impractical, as we have learned from our neighbors in the region, and it’s counter-intuitive. Jordan has benefited greatly from having a free and open Internet for the past 17 years. Jordan’s web industry are some of the more prolific content creators on the Arabic web. And we are just beginning to realize the full power a free Internet has on innovation and the exchange of ideas and opinions. Jordan will no longer be attractive to foreign investors looking to invest in the many digital start-ups in the country.
This article will deal a blow to all of that. Holding ISPs responsible for content, and giving the government unchecked powers to censor the Internet will ultimately lead to over-censorship. Holding ISPs responsible for content they cannot control, and cannot easily censor will cause more overhead on ISPs, which will ultimately raise the price for Internet access, which will make the Internet less affordable. These are costs that Jordanians do not need in this economic slowdown.
I was looking forward to a more progressive Telecommunications law, one that guarantees digital rights, fosters innovation, and promotes accessibility to the Internet. Article 6 (b) alone is regressive on all of those counts. Centralized censorship, and censorship in general, has no place in our laws.
After amendments to the Press and Publications law have been ratified, journalists organized a "Freedom Tent" as a sign of protest. Mohammad Tarakiyee reports from inside the tent about thoughts, opinions and activities of participants against the new law.
For the past 23 days in a row, a normally empty piece of land on one of Amman’s busiest main streets has become the daily meeting place of Jordanian journalists, opposition figures, and trade union activists, united by their opposition to the recently ratified Press and Publications Law. For two hours every day, activists and political figures speak out in ardent defence of Internet freedoms, a defence coming from relatively new support base of Internet freedom, which speaks volumes of the pivotal role the Internet has come to play in modern Jordanian civil society.
The protest tent was erected in response to the ratification of the highly controversial Press and Publications law. For the past decade, Jordan has undergone a massive transformation that aimed to poise it as a leader of the ICT sector in the region. By mantaining a mostly unrestricted Internet, and working hard to improve access to it, the local ICT sector grew to represent 14% of Jordan’s GDP and provide thousands of jobs to young Jordanians.
The fruits of improved Internet penetration eventually reached other sectors, creating a vibrant news websites community, offering instant updates, and often giving fresher and more alternative voices in society a platform that traditional press media wasn’t able to provide. With more than 270 reported Jordanian news websites, the government claims that the sector is in dire need of regulation, therefore the need for the new law. Opponents of the law claim that the main purpose of the law is to curb freedoms and to silence free press.
The tent has become an attraction to many opposition figures, writers, artists and trade union activists. Many journalists spoke of the importance of free press as a frontline defence against rampant corruption. Dr. Ahmad Abu Ghnamieh, a writer, said, “this tent isn’t only for online reporters, it is for all freedom-seeking Jordanians.” Nidal Mansour, the President of the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists, also spoke under the tent, insisting that the law came to curb freedom of speech and freedom of press.
Zaki Bin Irshaid, former secretary general of the IAF, a Jordanian Islamist party, said, “The ratification of the Press and Publications law proves that the government wants the press sector to stay small, since they can not be comfortable with anybody out of their control.”
The organisers of the aptly named Freedom Tent vow to go on. Journalist Basel Okour, member of the collective of news websites which organised the tent, stated that the perks that were promised to many journalists will not tempt them to register under the new law, as this draconian law goes against the interest of online journalists, as well as freedom of expression. He added, “Our defence of freedom is a matter of life or death to us.” He also criticized the official press outlets, claiming that they can never belong to real press out of goals, ideas, and ideals.
He also spoke of a series of planned events to happen within the daily protest. This Tuesday will host a panel titled, “The Intractability of Jordanian Politics and Proposed Solutions”, and it will feature ex-MP Toujan Faisal, former minister Bassam Omoush, Political Analyst Labib Qamhawi, and it will be hosted by media figure Dr. Roula Hroub.
For me personally, and many others, going to the Freedom tent was the first time I go down to a protest. News websites played an important role in exposing corruption and covering the causes of many Jordanians, and helped bring a little more justice in the world. I might not agree with many of these websites, and I do agree that some of them might lack a bit of professionalism, but curbing their freedom will silence so many voices that Jordan cannot afford to lose at this crucial stage of its history
Coldly killed by Jordanian MPs, the Internet, the free cyberspace directly responsible of Jordan’s entrepreneurship, creative initiatives, alternative media and of 14% of our country’s GDP, died today, age 16. A celebration of life service was held in front of the parliament.
It was 1996, when the Internet came to Jordan, at that time, the less-than 56k speed we got looked terrific, me and my brother were lucky enough to convince my parents to sign up for a dial-up Internet connection at home although the astronomical costs of a now-defunct ISP named NETS. Since the beginning, it was clear that web would open a brand-new world, building a new digital generation in Jordan.
Unhappy, like others, with the traditional media and boundaries imposed by society, the Internet offered freer ways of communication, the nation-wide popular Netscape Navigator was there to access news on arabia.com or to check the latest Abu Mahjoob cartoons on Baladna, these Jordanian websites, now offline, discovered very early the net’s potentials, together with sites like Maktoob, that is still considered a crowning achievement in Jordan’s tech entrepreneurship.
I don’t know if the Amman-born Khaled Mardam-Bey, the creator of mIRC, knows how popular his software was at the beginning of the last decade in his country of birth. For sure, who was a teenager like me at that time, remembers hours and hours spent on mIRC, it was without doubts a social phenomenon; the Internet started to be an inseparable part of our lives.
At that time as well, I was studying in Irbid, and I witnessed how the Internet transformed the social and business life of the tiny university city. Irbid’s unique University Street, was popularly renamed the Internet Street, referring to the huge amount of cybercafes that opened at that time, hundreds clustered in less than one kilometer, the number of internet cafes per capita was the highest in the world allowing Irbid to apply for a Guinness World Record. People from all ages, but especially young students, were among the ordinary clients of these mushroom-growing cafes, Internet allowed us to be connected to anywhere in the world, and to access knowledge through means completely unimaginable before.
There was a new shiny hope for Jordan, the vision of Internet openness Jordan had, the laissez-faire policies, allowed the IT sector to grow, and encouraged thousands of people like me to get a Computer Science university degree, and to work in the new, flourishing sector.
The Internet created a vibrant, productive sector that now generates 14% of Jordan’s GDP, and a workforce of tens of thousands, making Jordan the Arabic leader in online content production, and letting it gain the title of Middle East’s Silicon Valley by many.
Things have changed regarding the IT sector, the Internet is now considered a threat by many of the policy makers in this country, they are pushing for government’s censorship of the Internet not different to the way Jordanian authorities deal with traditional media. Lawmakers today expressed their total ignorance of how Internet works, explicitly saying that is a right, even a duty, for the government to block access to websites, making the Internet looking no more than a small toy in government’s hands.
At JOSA, we used to promote concepts like digital rights, net neutrality and the open web, to suddenly discover that our government and representatives do not understand anything, they are only willing to accept a new state-owned media, they call it Internet.
Yes, the parliament today killed the Internet as we know it, it killed thousands of jobs, companies and more importantly it killed the ambitions of this country and its people.
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