?Is it time for the Internet spring in the Arab region

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by Reem Al Masri

This was the title of the only session that meant to highlight Internet issues in the Arab world (out of 150 sessions) in the 2013 Internet Governance Forum. Held in Bali, Indonesia, this forum is the eighth UN-convened multi-stakeholder forum that brings together people from all sectors to discuss Internet policy issues. It was 7iber’s first participation in the IGF as part of civil society.

Even though issues of Internet civil rights filled the air of the forum’s hallways, there was a minimal presence of Arab delegates among the 1500 participants from governmental, public, and private sectors. In the High Level meeting on the first day, there was no Arab representative among the 19 panelists, which included the US, the EU, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, and other international civil societies. For 7iber, as a part of civil society and as an organization whose website has been censored by the government, this was the only space to bring forth issues of Internet freedom in this region in the conference.

If one was not updated with Internet news in the Arab world, s/he would think our region is a perfect, leading example in openness and policy making. The panel’s discussion was as dreamy as its title. As IGF panel submissions required organizers to select participants from different sectors: government, civil society, intergovernmental, and private institutions, this panel’s organizers seemed to believe that an inclusive conversation can be held by inviting the head of the ICT Development Department of the Arab League, two members of Arab IGF Secretariat, two representatives from ICANN, the director of the international Diplo foundation, and a Yemeni internet rights advocate residing in Sweden. During the first hour, the Arab IGF secretariat and Arab League panelists provided a “progressive” image of the “multi-stakeholder” process of Internet policies in the region. Then, the international civil society presented by the Diplo foundation and ICANN used the panel to market their work in the region.

The weak presence of the Arab civil society allowed a one-sided official narrative to only graze the surface of repressive practices of governments in this region. 

During this panel, which lasted for an hour and a half,  participants did not mention how Saudi Arabia jailed seven activists for organizing protests on Facebook. Nor was there a mention of how Kuwait jailed a writer for tweets ‘defaming’ an ex prime minister. The Whatsapp message of “Sisi is more criminal than Bashar” on the phone of a Jordanian, that sent him to a state security court under charges of “disrupting relations with foreign countries”, went under the radar. And so did the arrest of a blogger by  the Algerian security forces for posting on his Facebook account a caricature mocking the Algerian President. And there was no discussion of why Bahrain was named “enemy of the Internet” in 2012: one Bahraini blogger was getting tortured in Bahrain, and an editor of a popular online magazine was arrested for publishing an article that linked to an Al-Qaeda video in Morocco.

Panelists did not go over the Arab states’ recently proposed legislation which targets and incriminates online freedoms of speech such as in Qatar and Kuwait, or media laws that require governmental approval before launching an online publication in Jordan, which resulted in blocking over 200 websites. Nor did they  broach Saudi Arabia’s plans to connect Twitter accounts with a national identification card, or the old-school unregulated acts of online censorship in Bahrain and Oman.

It was only at the very end of the panel, during the Q&A part, that a few of the attendees from Jordan and Morocco were able to break the problematic facade created by the panel.  Addressing the Arab League representative, we questioned the evidence of the feel-good expression “multi-stakeholderism” in states that incriminate online expression. The Arab League representative insisted that civil society was more present than governments. The absence of civil society representatives attending the panel left this narrative unchallenged. In an attempt to conclude the discussion, the representative exclaimed, “how can I give you internet freedoms if you are threatening my national security?”

While Latin American countries and Indonesia are developing data protection and privacy laws to protect online users’ privacy and right of access, the Arab world is still debating online freedom of speech.

While it was inspiring to see that  Latin American countries and Indonesia are developing data protection and privacy laws to protect online users’ privacy and right of access, it was depressing to see the Arab world  still debating online freedom of speech. It was also astonishing how the presence of civil society alliances (on a local level like in Indonesia, or a regional like in Latin America and East Asia) across panelists and audience members prevented governments or enterprises from spreading propaganda without contestation.

The weak presence of the Arab civil society allowed a one-sided official narrative to only graze the surface of repressive practices of governments in this region. I have never been a believer in the results of huge conferences usually dominated by entities that wield the most power through tools, finances, and policy-making. However, the meetings at the IGF are the only place in which governments, civil society, and the private sector may directly and publicly interact at the same table. Regardless of a general fatigue of official meetings and a disbelief in systems of governance, it was  still disappointing to encounter the domination of an official regional narrative in such a “global” event. I left the session with the thought that we are, unfortunately, realistic about the fruitlessness of engagement with our governments (that we did not elect), as evident by the earlier remarks of the Arab League representative. Still, much work needs to be done within our role as components of civil society.

Some believe that  our online rights should not be an issue that demands  attention at the moment considering the atrocities our governments commit “offline”. However, we cannot afford to detach or  treat our online rights as separate from our offline ones; in this day and time the Internet is constantly shifting the process of consumption and production of knowledge. Furthermore, wasn’t the internet what contributed to producing a collective narrative that countered the official narratives of mainstream media?

Don’t  huge commonalities in the repressive practices of Arab governments online incite a need to form alliances that represent the us against these laws? Given our limited resources, how can we generate greater legitimacy in shedding light on Internet issues, putting forward a counter-regional narrative for the 125 millions digital user rights, and, to say the least, hack this global discussion?

 

You can read an account of the Arab Internet Government Forum in Algeria here.

You can see the full discussions in which Arab region issues came up via the following links:

1. “Is it time for the Internet spring in the Arab region?”

2.  Internet Governance for the Next Billion Users

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