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.
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.