Jordan elections reignite censorship fight

Tech community aims to lobby against laws they say will block an avenue for economic growth.

Last August Jordan's Parliament passed two laws limiting internet freedom [AFP]

As Jordanians head to the polls to elect a new parliament, ushering their fifth government in two years, many are sceptical their vote will bring change.

The present looks like the past: the Muslim Brotherhood is calling for a boycott, as it did in 2010 and 2011. Banners plaster Jordan’s roads, cars, and roundabouts, thick with old faces and old platforms.

But one thing these elections have brought is a newly prominent role for social media. One candidate captivating the nation is Shibli Haddad, whose sudden popularity, thanks to a studio-recorded YouTube song and a Facebook photo campaign depicting him farming in sunglasses and a suit, was documented in a popular infographic.

On the eve of the election, an anonymously leaked YouTube video caused a kerfuffle, appearing to show members of Parliament slighting a prime minister in 2009.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has championed Jordan as an information and communication technology (ICT) hub since the beginning of his reign, has pledged that this election is a step towards openness and democracy.

With an increase in the quota for women, a pledge to consult parliament in the next prime ministry appointment, and the addition of coalition-friendly lists of national seats to the ballot, the Hashemite monarch promises to inch the country towards proportional representation and the healthy creation of political parties.

“I look forward to this immediate next step towards full parliamentary government,” he said last week.  

Yet for Jordan’s tech community, whose leading new media platforms carry 75 percent of the region’s digital content, the elections bring ongoing issues to a head. Last autumn, they fought long and hard against new censorship laws, despite a legal process initially stacked against dissent.

Now, they face a quandary, as they wonder whether the new parliament will pass the single document that they say will help protect the kingdom’s fastest growing industrial sector.

Overturning censorship

In August 2012, parliament moved quickly on two agendas that would repeal Jordan’s noted internet freedom.

First, an amended ICT policy called for Jordan’s internet service providers (ISPs) to implement centralised blocking of pornographic sites.

Second, a press and publications law demanded that all media outlets, including blogs, register with the ministry of press and publications for a fee totalling no less than $14,000. Sites deemed “inappropriate” could be shut down at the ministry’s will.

We succeeded in changing the language to ensure that it’s the user’s right to choose what to access.”

– Abed Shamlawi, int@j CEO

The tech sector responded with immediate action, visibly lobbying ministries [Ar] under the banner of “7oryanet” (“freedom, o internet”), and staging an internet blackout inspired by many websites’ response to SOPA being tabled in the United States. 

Former Minister of Information and Communication Technology Marwan Juma led the battle call with a bulleted invective on Facebook, telling entrepreneurship platform Wamda that the censorship “goes against our positioning as a country”.

When the law was passed by both houses of parliament and given the royal seal of approval in mid-September, it was seen as a dark moment for the tech community, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s GDP.

Since September, however, the tech sector has begun to fight back, succeeding in revoking blanket censorship as de facto ICT policy, neutralising what was largely considered the first threat to internet growth in the country.

Over three months, the Information and Communications Association of Jordan (int@j) and others in the community hosted countless meetings with ministers and the ICT ministry, while simultaneously launching a media campaign that garnered global and local support, said int@j CEO Abed Shamlawi.

“We succeeded in changing the language to ensure that it’s the user’s right to choose what to access,” Shamlawi said.

ISPs will instead offer users tools for blocking pornography and inappropriate sites. “Having the end user in control is best practice from a global perspective,” Shamlawi added.

Protecting economy

But the tech community still considers the press and publications law a thorn in the ICT sector’s side.

Many fear the law will exacerbate economic stagnation by scaring off investors and deterring multinational tech companies which could play a key role in training Jordan’s tech talent and facilitating online media creation.

“This law has affected our international reputation. It allows for wide interpretation,” said Wael Attili, the founder of Kharabeesh, one of Jordan’s leading new media networks, which became famous during the Arab uprisings for satirical videos featuring Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi.

“Big internet corporations are having concerns about this law, and we cannot ignore the fact that these corporations are the base of our ICT culture,” Attili explained.

The ICT ministry is apparently now heeding the call, supporting the ICT community by sending a “letter of intent” guaranteeing that the law will not be applied to tech initiatives, said Shamlawi.

Candidates are discussing cutting budget costs, but not reforming the economy by creating opportunities. Not very many are discussing growing sectors.”

– Abed Shamlawi, int@j CEO

However, the letter is not a legal document. Now, in a move backed by the royal court, int@j and others are pushing for a “Memorandum of Clarification”, a document that would protect the tech sector should they take a case to court.

For now, implementations of the press and publication law haven’t hit the ICT sector, said Shamlawi.

However, this may change. Friday, January 18, marked the deadline by which all media sites were supposed to have registered with the Ministry of Press and Publication. When the edict was issued, around two thirds weren’t registered, said former ICT minister Marwan Juma.

Unregistered sites were supposed to go offline, a move that would ostensibly cut the tech and internet sector off at the knees.

Shamlawi and others in the tech community hope to lobby the new government after parliament committees are formed, in hopes that MPs will come around to understanding the ICT sector’s potential to accelerate economic growth.

“Candidates are discussing cutting budget costs, but not reforming the economy by creating opportunities. Not very many are discussing growing sectors,” he said. Many in the running are “the same faces we’ve seen before.”

New initiatives

While Jordan awaits its fate, some start-up founders are refocusing their activism on building new initiatives that will enhance transparency in the country.

In time to monitor the elections, Saeed Omar launched 7arat, a versatile crowdsourced data mapping platform that will track incidents of vote buying, election-related violence, and news updates.

Fouad Jeryes, a leading member of 7oryanet, points to plans by others to create simple crowdsourcing applications that connect citizens, representatives and higher government.

If elected MPs uphold the wishes of the tech sector, these initiatives may well hope to help re-position Jordan in the tech sphere. Yet, as Jeryes noted: “Netizens in Jordan aren’t sitting around to wait for the government to come up with solutions.”

Follow Nina Curley on Twitter: @9aa

Source: Al Jazeera