HRW's False Freedom Report

HRW has just released its long-awaited (well, by me, anyway) report on online censorship in the Middle East, penned by my good friend Elijah Zarwan. You can get it here, and it covers four countries in depth, each with its own specific problems: Egypt, Iran, Syria and Tunisia. Some cases in other countries are also mentioned (notably Bahrain and Libya), but for the sake of brevity and resources the report had to focus on these countries. The report notes that Egypt's "free internet" project and, aside from a few exceptions, generally tolerant policies towards online censorship, come out making it look quite good in comparison.
Since this site is usually rather negative about Egypt, I think in this case the government deserves to be commended for having made the internet so easily available and relatively unfettered. Now, for the rest of the country...

One of the interesting things about the report is the role that private companies involved in IT and telecoms often play a quite complicit role in internet censorship. I hope this can be a beginning to exposing their complicity and thinking about how they can be pressured financially to mend their ways.

The other thing that is worth thinking about is that in some cases, censorship and monitoring might be justified. As backwards and moronic as they are (well, their government at least), Saudis may very well feel that a site like flickr.com should be banned because it potentially contains nudity or pornography. The same goes for real porn sites. If a country decides it wants to block some material for moral reasons, can we say that this is political censorship? Another point, again quite relevant to Saudi Arabia as well as other countries, is that there is legitimate policing work to do on the internet, particularly in the case of jihadist websites that can be used to spread dangerous ideas or organize terrorist activity. What do you do about those? Where is the line between an online police state and counter-terrorism efforts?

Meanwhile, back in Tunis, the government does not want you to read this report. I just received some nice screenshots from Elijah, who is launching the report at WSIS over there, of error pages when you enter the URLs above. Click on the pic below for a full size shot.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.