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.
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.
After government's green light to block websites under very dubious "ethical" reasons, the Jordanian government approved today the new Publications Law, which gives authorities more power to control and censor the Internet in Jordan, Issa Mahasneh reports.
The Jordanian council of ministers approved today a new law amending the Publications and Press Law of 1998, making the new law, if approved by lawmakers, one of the biggest threats to Internet Freedom in Jordan.
"The draft law was needed to regulate work of electronic sites, make them accountable under the penal code and oblige the ones interested in covering Jordan's internal and external affairs to register and get license like the print press", our state-run news agency reported, although news websites were already included in the Press Law and classified as press publications in a 2010 Supreme Court decision, a decision met with fierce opposition from journalist, media organizations and, of course, by Jordan Open Source Association.
Today's new amendments are even more draconian, the Director General of the Department of Press and Publication is given the right to block any non-Jordan based website in case of violations. Based on what news websites are reporting, although not being a judicial figure, this Director General has now the executive power to block pieces of Internet, and to issue tsar-style ukases against any news website registered in Jordan.
Additionally, in a very discussable amendment, news websites will be totally responsible of user generated content, like comments, in case they are published. Meaning that any comment should be moderated and, actually, censored by website administrators.
The new law requires websites to store any comment for a 6-month period, it is important here to see that comments, even published or not, should be stored, what it is not clear, as the full text of amendments are not made public yet, is which control the government will have on these stored comments.
If approved by parliament and royal assent, this primitive, medieval legislation will considerably restrict press freedoms on the net, making the only real democratic space in Jordan, the only space that allows citizens to get free information and have their say, under the control of the government.
The Jordanian government is adopting stronger positions against Internet Freedom, after speaking in favor of black-censoring websites that might contain "pornographic" materials and considering a draft law to "regularize" news websites, it is now the turn of political content, officially asked to be removed from Google. Issa Mahasneh shares his fears that Internet in Jordan will not be free anymore soon.
In the last six months, Google has received more than one thousand requests from government authorities to remove content which are considered 'harmful'.
The bad story for us is that one of the new-entries is, unfortunately, Jordan, whose authorities have requested the removal of "less than 10" pieces of content, for the first time since Google started publishing these data.
The Mountain View based company started releasing publicly all the countries' requests in its "Transparency Report" since January 2010.
Although in other countries most of the requests are court orders, cases where content have been found to not comply with national laws according to the country's juridical system. In Jordan, all the requests were from the Government, which implicates that content requested to be removed are mostly allegations on political basis.
In fact, most of the requests Google receives for such removals are politically related, as explained by Dorothy Chou, Senior Policy Analyst at Google, "We’ve been asked to take down political speech" she said, adding that free expression is at risk.
Google reported that none of the Jordanian requests were fully or partially complied with. But the fear of having the government asking for more of content removal from Google is understandable.
It is now clear that the Jordanian government has strong intentions to tighten its control on the Internet, making it less free, the role of the civil society now is to not putting the censor's scissors in the hands of the government under any excuse, and if we really care about the Internet (and we do), we should really fight for its first principle, openness.
In this digital era, we should believe that Internet Freedom is one of the main freedoms we should fight for. The question we have to answer is easy; can we really give the government the authority to decide what we can see on the web or we cannot?
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