Censorship comes to Jordan

Jordan’s IT industry could take a dive as new censorship laws come into effect.

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According to YallaStartup!, 61 companies - most being tech startups - are located in Jordan [Al Jazeera/Hashem Said]

In the censorious Middle East, Jordan has often stood out for its relative press and other freedoms. Though laws in the Kingdom prohibit insulting the king, slandering the government or foreign leaders, offending religious beliefs, or stirring sectarian strife, and books and press are monitored and sometimes censored, citizens are, in practice, fairly free to express their beliefs.

For the country’s technology sector, this environment has brought prosperity and innovation. Jordan is, after all, where the first major Arabic-language blogging platform, Maktoob, was born, and one of few countries in the region where foreign companies – such as Yahoo! and Google – have offices. YallaStartup!, a project that seeks to foster entrepreneurship in the region, lists 61 companies in Jordan (most of them tech startups), more than any other country in the region, illustrating how Jordan is leading the way for technology development in the region.

Jordan’s IT industry, which has become a real success story with Amman often labelled as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, was built on the premise that the internet is open and without restrictions.

– Marwan Juma, REACH

This open environment is no small coincidence: The REACH initiative, launched in 1999 by the private sector with King Abdallah’s oversight, has enabled information and communications technology (ICT) to become the fastest growing sector of the Jordanian economy, creating nearly 60,000 IT jobs across sectors.

The success of REACH might be why, this week, one of its founders and former Minister of ICT, Marwan Juma, spoke out against recent measures by government officials to censor the internet. Habib Haddad, CEO of Wamda is similarly concerned: 

“Jordan’s tech sector grew to become one of the most vibrant ones in the region, giving birth to many tech startups, encouraging investors and attracting multinationals to set up shop. This kind of direct government intervention will severely stiffen creativity and add even more friction layers to an ecosystem that has been working for so long to remove.” 

The latest moves to censor the internet come as a surprise to many observers, who have long noted Jordan as a standout for keeping the internet unfettered. Jordan’s government agencies have approached the issue differently: The Telecommunication Regulation Commission (TRC) sent directives to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block individual websites, while the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology reportedly stated that they were working with an Australian company to develop a more comprehensive system. Though the effort to censor has so far been aimed at censoring pornographic content, some fear collateral damage.

That is exactly what occurred when the Australian government tried the same thing. Following a 2009 leak of the Australian government’s “blacklist” of pornographic websites, it was discovered that several innocuous websites, including one of a local dentist, had been included.

Indeed, even when the intent is only to block illegal content, it is all too easy for other websites to get caught up in filters. As Juma points out, “Very often harmless sites get blocked because they may contain words that are deemed offensive (such as women’s health sites when they refer to “breast” cancer for example).”

It is worth noting that the impetus to filter did not come from the government, but from grassroots protests urging the government to block pornography. The Ministry of ICT responded by offering free downloadable filtering software on their website. The software, called Golden Filter Pro, is built by an Egyptian company and ranks highly with users.

Offering free software to families is a progressive move from the Ministry, and should be applauded. It enables families to make their own decisions about what content to disable, moving the conversation away from national policy and toward private interest. More importantly, it maintains an environment of free expression.

On the other hand, sending directives to ISPs – as the TRC did – sets a dangerous precedent. Most countries lack protections for intermediaries – such as ISPs and social media platforms – leaving them vulnerable to prosecution if they fail to comply with a filtering directive. The threat intermediaries face in such countries was made clear by a court case earlier this year in Thailand where a webmaster faced a possible maximum of 32 years in prison for failing to take down comments that violated the country’s Lèse Majesté laws.

Though in that case it was a local webmaster, the same provisions would have applied to a large technology company like Google. In India, a regulation requiring intermediaries like Google to prohibit certain types of content on their platforms went into effect this past April. Google did initially take down content, but it remains unclear what would happen if the company refused. Chances are, they would have faced penalties or found their sites blocked in the country.

It’s not a stretch to see how the measures put forth by the TRC could affect companies with offices in Jordan. 

The Ministry’s alleged plan to create a national filter remain vague and uncertain, but are also cause for concern. Filtering software is imperfect and frequently catch “unwanted” sites (such as that of the poor Australian dentist), and can easily be expanded and abused, particularly where oversight is opaque.

If Jordan wants to remain on the path to becoming the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East“, then government officials need to carefully consider all of the potential ramifications of their actions. Would appeasing the loud calls for censorship be worthwhile if they caused foreign companies to flee and the economy to suffer? Or is it better to offer innovative solutions befitting of a leader in technology, as the Ministry of ICT did by offering filtering software to families?

Perhaps Juma puts it best: “Instead of wasting millions on futile attempts to censor and block sites why not invest the same amount to train and educate parents so they can make more educated and intelligent decisions?”

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork