Is the government watching Egyptians or watching over them: Egypt's Cyber Crime law in January

Hadeer El-Mahdawy , Tuesday 3 Jan 2017

Cyber Cafe
Egyptians work on their computers in a cafe in Cairo. (Reuters)

Egypt's parliament is expected to discuss a long-awaited draft law on cyber-crime in January, MP Ahmed Badawy told Ahram Online, giving the first estimated timeframe for the bill to go before parliament.

"A law to combat cyber crime is an essential demand and the parliament plans to have this law passed as soon as possible since we are already late," Badawy said.

A number of drafts of the bill were submitted to parliament earlier last year, but none was passed. Badawy did not specify which draft would be discussed in January.

On 24 December, an interior ministry official told state news agency MENA that "1,045 Facebook pages were shut down in 2016 for inciting violence actions against police and army officers, and calling for marches and blocking roads," along with other crimes like fraud and verbal insults.

The head of the ministry’s department for fighting crimes related to computers and information networks, Ali Abaza, told MENA that the department, which was established in 2002, had closed the pages as a result of their own monitoring or reports from citizens.

"The interior ministry respects human rights, and does not monitor people, but only crimes according to the law, so they track the public pages and not the private ones,” Abaza said. “We don't spy on people, we only track criminal or terrorist activities."

Amr Gharbia, Technology and Human Rights officer  at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Ahram Online that internet companies have had concerns about how the law is being enforced in Egypt since June 2013, when they stopped responding to government requests to reveal data about users.

"Those companies define what is acceptable to them and what is not, thus they are the ones who define the rules of the game, not the different regimes," he said.

According to Facebook's Government Requests Report, the Egyptian government submitted only one request for one account or user's data during the first half of 2016. Facebook did not produce the data, as they considered the requests to not have adequate legal backing. In the second half of 2015, four requests regarding 10 accounts/users were submitted, and Facebook only produced data for 25 percent of those requested.

No requests by the Egyptian government were recorded in the Twitter transparency reports for the same period.

According to Gharbia,  there are four ways Egyptian authorities can monitor and shut down pages: officially, through a court order (a court in Egypt corresponds with a court in the company's country of origin), through a governmental request to the company, or through cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the governments concerned. Otherwise, the Egyptian government needs advanced monitoring software which can be used to shut a page down.

Gharbia doubts the existence of advanced technology behind the closure of those pages. Rather he says, security officials employ a system rather like "random check points." According to this method, officials "monitor the internet, track users and identify their IP address, arrest them, force them to confess, force them to expose the passwords of pages or accounts, and then shut [the page] down."

In June 2013, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement on his official page saying, "When the governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure."

"Companies, users and regimes became aware of the importance of the internet as part of the public sphere in 2011, but when the Egyptian authorities declare they have closed more than a thousand pages, I doubt this, because they need a large number of engineers, and it's a very expensive process," said Gharbia.

Official sources told local newspapers on 10 December that the interior ministry sent a request to Facebook and Twitter to close the accounts of "Hasm", a militant group that has declared responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Egypt. Most of these pages were closed.

In July 2015, the interior ministry said it arrested someone from Ismailia, accusing him of running a group named El-Ekab El-Thawry (The Revolutionary Punishment Movement), which declared responsibility for a number of attacks targeting state officials. The page was closed, but it is not clear whether Facebook shut it down or the security forces did.

But pages related to terrorist attacks were not the only ones closed during 2016. In June, the interior ministry closed the "Shawming" page, which was responsible for leaking numerous exam papers for Egypt’s national secondary school certificate, along with the answers in some cases. The alleged administrator of the page was also arrested.

In December 2015, the Interior ministry declared it had arrested the administrator of Thawret El-Fokaraa group (The Revolution of the Poor), which had called for protests on 25 January 2016.

The admin was accused of promoting the ideas of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, and of inciting violence against state institutions. The interior ministry also accused him of running other 20 pro-Brotherhood pages. 

Tough regulations

Internet crime is regulated by Egypt’s anti-terrorism law which was issued in late 2013, as well as older legislation such as the penal code and the communications law.

While activists and rights defenders perceive the existing legislation on cyber crime as very harsh, law-makers and the state say it doesn't go far enough.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has signed, states: "(1) Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. (2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

However, the covenant says that these rights "may be subject to certain restrictions" where necessary "for respect of the rights or reputations of others" and "for the protection of national security or of public order… or of public health or morals."

There are a number of relevant provisions in Egyptian law that have been used in conjunction with offences committed online, including expressing views on social media or administering pages on social networks.

Article 40 of the criminal penal code equates incitement to a crime with committing the crime itself. Article 174 imposes a five-year jail term on whoever incites a coup against the ruling regime, or hate against it, or promotes ideas to change the constitutional principles, or to change essential systems by force, and whoever threatens government security.

Articles 176 and 177 put penalties in place for inciting hate against certain groups if this incitement affects public order, or invites the violation of laws.

However, the term "incitement" is not defined in Egyptian law.

The anti-terrorism law, which established harsher penalties, gives a broad definition to "terrorist" actions, and equates the incitement of a crime with the crime itself, even if no action has resulted from the incitement. Article 29 of that law mandates a five-year prison sentence for anyone creating a website that incites ideas that would obstruct authorities, promotes ideas calling for terrorist actions, impedes justice, or provides a platform for exchanging information about terrorists and their movements.

In June 2014, it became clear that the government is planning to invest more in monitoring social media, with the interior ministry announcing the start of a project to track security threats on social media networks. This "project to measure the public opinion" was authorized by Decree No. 22 for the year 2013/2014. The decree allows the ministry to use advanced software to monitor and identify any threats to national security, with the ministry issuing a tender for that purpose.

At the time, press reports suggested that the contract had been won by Systems Engineering of Egypt (SEE), one of the biggest Egyptian companies offering data and information technology equipment and services. However, since that time there have been no official announcements on the topic.

The company website lists the ministry among its customers – along with other ministries, banks, hospitals, and other firms – Ali Meniesy, the CEO of SEE, told Ahram Online that his company has nothing to do with the bid. Nor is it offering monitoring services to the ministry, he said.

Many activists have been arrested or sentenced over the past years on charges related to internet activity, while in many cases internet posts have been used as evidence against activists.

Various human rights reports relating to internet freedom have listed Egypt as lacking in freedoms.

On 20 December, graffiti artist Sayed Mohamed Sayed (Seiko) was arrested at his house and transferred to El-Warrak police station, then charged with "misuse" of social media.

The incident began with a sarcastic post on the online shopping website OLX, advertising a request to purchase an interior minister.

"The police investigation mistakenly identified Sayed as being responsible for that post, so they arrested him," said Mohamed Azab, lawyer from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, who has been following Seiko's case.

Prosecutors were due to release Sayed on 22 December on a bail of EGP 1,000, but as of now he has not been released, Azab said.

This is not the first case relating to online crimes that Azab has dealt with. Last year, a young man was sentenced to one year in prison for misusing the internet by posting a sarcastic political cartoon online, he said.

In October, Khaled Mokhtar Abdel Latif, the administrator of a satirical Facebook page called Tamat El-Targama (The Translation is done) was arrested for several days and charged with "participating in and inciting protests, blocking roads, and being a member in the Muslim Brotherhood." The charges followed a sarcastic video on his page that mocked a state official and went viral.

The members of a famous band called Atfal Shawarea (Street Children) were arrested last May after recording satirical songs and posting them online. They were charged with "inciting protests, publishing videos online that address state institutions, and insulting the president." They were released later in September on "precautious arrangements".

In January 2016, Islam Gawish was arrested for drawing cartoons critical of the regime and posting them on the Facebook page El-Waraka (The Paper). The official charges brought against Gawish were "running a page without a license, and having a pirated computer software system."

NGOs such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) have called on the interior ministry to respect the law, human rights, freedom of expression, privacy and the exchange of information, in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Several NGOs has launched a legal case against Decree No. 22, claiming that it violates public freedoms through constant inspection of content circulating on social media, which is becoming part of the public sphere. A verdict in the case is due in February.

In September 2016, the State Commissioners Authority recommended  the approval of the decree, saying that it does not violate Egypt's constitution, which places limits on rights and freedoms in line with public order and national security.

Hassan El-Azhary is a researcher at AFTE and one of the lawyers who filed the legal challenge. He told Ahram Online that there are no available statistics on the number of citizens arrested on charges relating to internet use.

"The decree clearly allows state surveillance, and gives wide authorisation to violate privacy and create fake accounts to infiltrate closed groups," he said.

"There are three laws and regulations that control this issue, and they are already harsh and violate the freedoms and rights stated in the Egyptian Constitution," added El-Azhary.

The lawyer explained that there is a "trend by the state to place restrictions on freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism. But fighting terrorism is not the rule; it should be the exception – and we cannot be ruled by exceptional laws."

"Terrorists use very advanced applications to communicate. They do not use the basic communications that the state watches. The state applies surveillance not to track terrorism, but to restrict the space for the expression of political opinions that are widespread on social networks," El-Azhary concluded.

Last week, Open Whisper Systems, the developer of the encrypted messaging application Signal, which is mostly used by activists, said that its app is being blocked in Egypt. Two days later, however, the users of Signal were able to access the app, with the developers saying they had re-established the service by applying a technical workaround.

What is the need for a new law?

Ahmed Badawy the head of parliament's communications committee is among those who called for a new law on cyber-crime issues. Badawy told Ahram Online there are thousands of internet pages that incite terrorism and violence, and others that pose security risks of various kinds.

"Although the interior ministry closed 1,045 page, we have reports of over 4,000 pages that  should be closed immediately, not only because they promote terrorism and violence," he said.

"This law is to protect personal data, and against the online gang networks that con, insult and blackmail citizens, and steal identities. It's also against fake pages that publish false news. It's for the benefit of society and national security," he said.

"The law should have tougher standards, and tougher penalties, but it will not violate freedom of expression," Badawy continued. "It's only against criminal and terrorist actions. We have 50 million internet users. They are all vulnerable to cyber gangs and hackers. So if the user is not doing any harm to national security, he should not be worried about surveillance by the interior ministry."

However, EIPR's Gharbia is not convinced that the new cyber-crime law is a good idea, pointing instead to deficiencies in judicial and policing procedures, including the enforcement of existing laws.

"When people incite against certain groups, this is a crime, but when people express their opinions about a certain idea, this is freedom of expression. In Egypt, people are arrested because of their opinions. The police and army are state institutions, and inciting against them is a crime, but it's not hate speech, while people who commit hate speech that can cause wars and mass slaughter, are not punished by the Egyptian government. So laws to protect individuals are not enforced," Gharbia explained.

"What would really protect the right to privacy, and also stop crimes, is having efficient procedures for criminal justice, a real independent judiciary, an efficient investigative police force, and a decent prisons -- along with law enforcement. Without these measures, we cannot punish anyone for talking," he added.

As for the genuine threat of terrorism, Gharbia says that strengthening penalties is not the answer.

"Fears of terrorism are legitimate, but terrorism is a global threat and not exceptional. It has always been there, it's only getting worse, and the very harsh penalties that already exists in too many and confusing laws have not stopped it. Toughening penalties through a new cyber-crime law will not help. Death or life-imprisonment sentences, for instance, will not hold back the suicide attackers. The government is making the situation worse," he concluded.

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