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Egypt cybercrimes law a potential threat to liberties: Activists

Egypt’s upcoming cybercrimes law may be backed by security experts, but activists warn that it may be used to further silence criticism

Salma Shukrallah , Wednesday 6 May 2015
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A new law regulating cybercrimes has already been approved by Egypt’s cabinet and only awaits presidential approval.

With Egypt witnessing an escalating wave of violence from militant groups, who have often used cyberspace as a medium for incitement, Information Minister Khaled Negm has repeatedly stressed the urgency of such a regulatory law.

The minister has stressed that the law would mainly aim to combat "extremist ideas" on social media, as well as fight hacking and piracy.  

A militant insurgency in Egypt's Sinai has left hundreds of security forces killed over the past two years, and explosions targeting security as well as economic facilities have become common in main cities.  

Militants are believed to have frequently used the internet as a tool to incite violence, as well as to recruit or give instructions to sympathisers.

Police officials recently stated that they have shut down hundreds of websites encouraging violence since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Security forces have so far cited Egypt’s criminal law to crack down on such websites.

But, says security expert and former assistant interior minister Mohamed Nour El-Din, there needs to be a specialised law for cybercrimes.

"This is a new space with new types of crimes that need a specialised law," he told Ahram Online.

"There are many internet crimes, including using the internet to taint the reputation of individuals, publish their private information to create a scandal, incite murder and commit financial fraud," Nour El-Din said.

"All terrorist groups now use the internet to incite murder and to explain how to make explosives or cut off railways," he said.

A special unit to fight cybercrimes already exists within the interior ministry, according to security expert and former police brigadier general Mahmoud Kotri. But this unit has become insufficient, since such crimes need to be tackled on a much wider scale.

"We are now facing a lot of piracy," said Kotri. “Important official websites are being hacked and, while there might already be an existing law to fight terrorism, there isn’t one to cover the many other internet crimes that we were previously not familiar with.”

Besides the new law, security forces need to invest in young specialists, Kotri believes, as older officials lack the required knowledge to deal with cybercrimes.

"While security forces currently mostly rely on hackers, whose criminal record is not always clear, they need to start training their own specialists," he said.  

Potential impact on liberties      

Despite Information Minister Khaled Negm’s repeated assurances about it aiming to protect individual security, the law, which is yet to be made public, has already raised alarms among activists over its potential impact on liberties.   

"One is generally skeptical when it comes to laws regulating cyberspace,” said Ahmed Gharbeia, information system specialist at the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF). “The [state’s] general stance is to criminalise anything it opposes, which leads to disastrous consequences."

According to Gharbeia, it is unlikely that the law will be able to fight the crimes for which it has been drafted.

"Hacking, for example, is a transnational activity that cannot be tackled with a law," he explained, expressing his doubts that Egypt’s security forces actually have the know-how to combat such international crimes.

While the law might not be effective in tackling serious crimes, it would however likely be used to suppress opposition, he argued.  

"It is more likely that such a law will be used to target youth with Facebook pages criticising the government,” Gharbeia said. “That has definitely been the trend so far for most of the new laws designed to quell opposition."

A serious public debate including experts and rights groups would have been required to produce such a law without threatening liberties, he said.

Lack of transparency

The main problem, explains Ahmed Kheir, from the Information Technology Support Centre, is that the law has been drafted in complete secrecy and without consulting any concerned bodies.

"We did not get a chance to see the law,” he said. “No one has. We don’t even know who drafted it, and it does not look like we will see it until it is approved."    

According to Gharbeia, drafting such laws should involve a public debate between rights activists, legal experts, researchers and government officials, and an abundant amount of literature already existing on the issue.

"Drafting the law in such a manner does not only undervalue the issue, but it also gives an indication of what the outcome is likely to be," says Gharbeia.

Lawyer Hassan El-Azhary from the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) similarly agrees that concerned groups have not yet been able to have a public opinion on the law, let alone raise any concerns they might have with it, considering that they have yet to be presented with an official document.

"[Instead] we can raise our concerns and make a public statement, and then be told that the leaked copy is not valid," says El-Azhary.      

Leaked draft ‘alarming’

A leaked copy of the law, published by Al-Shorouk newspaper, reveals that the law is to include punishments to reach life imprisonment and a LE500,000 fine.

Cybercrimes committed with the intention of disturbing the general peace, putting people's lives at risk, obstructing authorities, disrupting the constitution, harming national unity or showing any contempt of religion will be punishable by life imprisonment, revealed the report.   

Lawyer El-Azhary says that the law, as leaked, includes several alarming points.

First, it includes terms that are very vague, such as "national interest" and "national security", which El-Azhary says is a reason for concern as such terms are not clearly defined and can be applied to any act.

Website owners are held responsible for their inability to protect their pages when these crimes are committed through their site, further explains El-Azhary.

"There are millions of website users in Egypt and most of them do not even have the knowhow to protect their pages," says El-Azhary, arguing that could hold many accountable for crimes for which they are not responsible.

He also criticised the hefty sentences prescribed by the draft law.

The law would only work to "limit public space and freedom of expression," he concluded.

Exceptional laws

Egypt has not had a parliament since its dissolution in 2012. Since then, former president Mohamed Morsi was ousted, and new presidential elections voted in current president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

While parliamentary elections were supposed to closely follow the presidential polls, they have been postponed due to flaws in the elections law.

In the absence of a parliament, a special body of judges drafts exceptional laws, those believed to be the most urgent, which then require the cabinet’s approval and president’s ratification.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has issued over 150 exceptional laws have since he took office, explains El-Azhary, who believes that many were not needed.

El-Azhary complains the cybercrimes law is not urgent and should have waited for parliament.

Two laws already regulate internet-related crimes, he explains. There is the criminal law and Law 10/2003 of the communications law.

These two are used to hold people accountable for "wrongful use of communication tools" and can be applied to internet, phones or any form of communication.

"If harsher punishments are needed, an amendment to the already existing law would have sufficed," he said.

'Limits on free expression'

Lawyer Fatma Serag, also from AFTE, pointed to several internet-related cases in Egypt that infringe on freedoms, even before any new cybercrimes law.

Last January, Karim El-Banna was sentenced to three years in prison or a LE 1,000 bail on charges of insulting the Islamic religion through his posts on Facebook.

In February, Karam Ismail was sentenced to three months or a LE 500 bail, in addition to a LE 20,000 fine on charges of calling for protests on an internet page.

The same month, Sherif Abdel-Azim was also sentenced to a year or a LE 1,000 bail, also on charges of contempt of religion based on posts he published on his Facebook account.

Student Mohamed El-Arabi is currently facing military trial on charges of publishing information harmful to the armed forces and threatening to national security.   

If the new cybercrimes law is passed as leaked, El-Azhary believes that such trials will increase by the hundreds, and with much heftier sentences.

"The internet is one of the few spaces left for people to express themselves freely," he said, and the new law would likely serve to further limit this freedom.         

In Egypt, hundreds have been tried and handed prison sentences, since a protest law was passed in November 2013, banning all demonstrations without a permit from the authorities.

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