Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Criticisms of cybercrime law

Human rights activists are critical of a draft cybercrime law currently being discussed in parliament, writes Mona El-Nahhas

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Antagonising Technology” was the title of a report issued last week by three human rights organisations in Egypt reviewing some of the major articles of a controversial new cybercrime law that is undergoing parliamentary discussion.

In their report, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Support Centre for Information Technology, and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression strongly criticise the draft law, which they say creates an “exceptional status” in Egyptian criminal law.

The report says there is no such thing as a cybercrime and that crimes should not be classified according to the way in which they are committed.

Receiving preliminary approval by the House of Representatives Complaints and Suggestions Committee early last month, the draft law has been referred to the Communications and Information Technology Committee, another specialised committee, for more thorough discussion.

A number of government officials, including representatives from the defence and interior ministries, were present during the 10 May meeting of the Complaints Committee.

The 30-article draft law, submitted by independent MP Tamer Al-Shahawi, sets penalties ranging from arrest and fines to the death sentence for committing cybercrimes.

When presenting the draft to parliament, Al-Shahawi, explained that the aim of the legislation is to safeguard national security and to protect society from those who support terrorism and incite violence.

Al-Shahawi spent nearly 20 years in the military intelligence services before retiring in 2011.

In the report, the rights activists express their strong opposition to the law, which they view as a setback for freedom of expression and call upon parliament to turn down.

Prominent legal activist Gamal Eid said that the draft law is an attempt to silence the young opposition figures who express their views on social media outlets.

“I expected that the government would try to impose restrictions on social media outlets, but it did not cross my mind that it would ever appeal to such a scandalous law,” Eid told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The rights groups argue that the draft has been presented to parliament in a non-transparent way and that it has excluded the input of civil society representatives. The penalties set for violators in the law are very harsh and the wording of the articles loose and vague, the report says.

The authors of the report also complain that the proposed legislation violates the principle of equality before the law, as it differentiates in terms of penalties between cybercrimes and other crimes, mandating harsher punishments for committing cybercrimes.

According to Article 23 of the draft law, the crime of blasphemy carries a lifetime jail sentence if committed on the Internet, but only a five-year jail sentence if the same crime is committed on a satellite TV channel.

The report says Article 23 is the most dangerous in the draft law as it punishes actions committed on the Internet threatening public order, national unity and social peace with sentences that could reach lifetime jail terms.

“On such loose charges, hundreds of Internet users could be targeted, if, for example, they called for protests,” said Sherif Mohieddin of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

The report criticises Article 14 of the draft law, which gives the state prosecution the right to ask the courts to block Internet content if it threatens national security. “This could be used to deprive citizens of the right to access information using ‘national security’ as a pretext without giving any clear definition of it,” the report says.

Under Article 28 of the draft law the security agencies are allowed to suspend the service of any unregistered network user in cases that threaten national security.

The report also sheds light on the controversial Article 15 of the new law, which stipulates very harsh penalties for violators. The article sets a penalty of a three-year jail term and a fine of LE2 million against any Internet service provider that fails to comply with a criminal court decision to block certain websites or links.

If this failure results in the death of a person or the destabilisation of national security, the perpetrator could be sentenced to a lifetime jail term and a fine not exceeding LE20 million, the law says.

The draft has also been criticised for discriminating between the state and ordinary citizens, setting harsher penalties for those who commit crimes targeting government emails or websites.

Replying to his critics, Al-Shahawi was quoted as saying that it is unacceptable to propose a draft law that would restrict citizens’ freedom or threaten their privacy. “Every citizen has the right to freely express his opinions and criticise government policies. However, he should not be allowed to incite murder through social media outlets or set up websites supporting terrorist entities,” Al-Shahawi said.

Talking to the parliament’s online portal, Al-Shahawi said that cybercrime is the most serious threat facing the state. “It is our duty to take strict and deterring measures to counter such threats,” Al-Shahawi said, adding that the penalties stipulated in the draft law already exist in similar legislation worldwide and are applied in several European countries.

“This law has become a necessity, especially in the absence of a single article elsewhere that criminalises violations committed on the Internet,” Al-Shahawi concluded.

In February 2015, the cabinet started working on a draft cybercrime law, but no steps have been taken towards issuing it.

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