The Middle East Channel

Jordan's internet goes dark

In a region home to governments with a long history of Internet censorship, Jordan has long stood out as a model of relative freedom. Since its arrival in the kingdom in the mid 1990s, free and open access to the World Wide Web has not only been maintained but indeed championed by King Abdullah II, since he came into power in 1999. An unfiltered Internet has been largely credited for cultivating a burgeoning IT sector that has come to represent roughly 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), as well as a new wave of youth-driven, Internet-based entrepreneurship in a country where unemployment ranges between 13 percent (official) and 30 percent (unofficial).

With such context in mind, many Jordanians were surprised at the government's announcement this August that it would be amending the country's notorious Press and Publications law to include articles that would seek to restrict Internet freedoms. The draft legislation includes articles that would hold online media accountable for any comments left by their readers, and would prohibit them from publishing any comments deemed irrelevant to the published article. Moreover, online media organizations would also be required to archive all comments left on their sites for at least six months. However, the most troublesome amendment essentially requires online media to register with and obtain a license from the Press and Publications Department, paying a fee of roughly $1,400 (lowered from an initially proposed $14,000), and giving the government the ability to block sites failing to comply. Bringing online news sites in to the folds of the Press and Publications law would therefore require them to be mandatory members of the Jordan Press Association, and undergo the same regulations governing print publications, including appointing an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the association for a minimum of four years.

Without a doubt, the proposed articles have been specifically designed to target the country's growing pool of online news sites that have risen to well over 100 in recent years. Since their emergence in the late 2000s, Jordanian news sites like Sarayanews, Ammon News, and Khaberni have managed to amass a following amongst the country's two million Internet users that surpasses in ranking even the largest mainstream print newspapers, Al Rai and Ad Dustour. However, such sites have proven to be a pesky presence for the state, which has, through successive governments, made several attempts to regulate their growth, and more importantly, their content.

In mid 2010, the Smair Rifai government blocked access to roughly 50 news sites throughout government buildings, under the pretext of a 30-day study claiming public sector workers were wasting three hours a day surfing websites unreleated to their work. The ban coincided with the introduction of a draft Cyber Crimes law that included articles imposing fines on organizations or individuals who disseminated information deemed to be "slanderous or defamatory," and gave authorities the power to raid offices of news websites and confiscate computers with a court order. After eight months of deliberation, the law was passed without the controversial amendments at the last minute, while the order to block news sites in government buildings was reversed several months later during Marouf Bakhit's government and the advent of the Arab Spring. The 2010 Cyber Crimes law emerged in draft form days after Jordan's Supreme Court had made a controversial ruling that categorized local news sites as publications and therefore subject to the troublesome legal framework of the Press and Publications law.

Successive governments have consistently accused Jordanian news sites of practicing irresponsible journalism, publishing slanderous articles, and partaking in character assassinations as well as blackmail. However, for the average Jordanian Internet user, such sites represent a vital resource of fairly unfiltered, local breaking news, as well as a platform for discussion, which may help explain the antagonistic relationship between the state and the budding, unregulated sector.

Yet, what would push Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh's government (which has recently passed its 100-day mark and faces upcoming parliamentary elections) to initiate such a controversial legislative move now? The answer lies in a campaign initiated in late 2011 by a conservative group dubbed Ensaf, demanding the government block access to pornographic content online. Over the course of several months, the group managed to garner a significant following of 35,000 members on their Facebook page, and collect over tens of thousands of signatures in support of a petition to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Meanwhile, another Facebook group dubbed "I Know How To Protect Myself", quickly emerged in mid April, attempting to counter the movement, and advocated for self-regulation through the use of Internet filtering tools. The group contended that demanding the blocking of porn sites would give the government mandate to widen its censorship net.

After dozens of Ensaf protesters held a demonstration outside the Ministry of ICT earlier this summer to demand the blocking of porn sites, the ministry's response was ambiguous, ranging from subtle support to the offering of free filtering and privacy control tools on their website for concerned parents to download. However, according to one document, the ministry privately sent out requests through the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), to the country's Internet service providers, giving them two weeks to take steps to ban porn sites and inform the TRC. Ahead of the request, the ministry also declared that it was preparing a new telecommunications law that would seek to ban porn sites and usher in an era of "clean Internet." With this particular law yet to emerge, in the meantime the government opted to quickly submit the controversial amendments of the Press and Publications law to the parliament during its extraordinary session, which resumed earlier this week.

In response to the proposed amendments, web activists launched an initiative called 7oryanet (translating roughly to: "Your are free, Oh Internet") to raise awareness about the law through a 24-hour blackout of websites on Wednesday, August 29. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)-style blackout, which was organized in a single week, brought together over 200 local websites, including prominent news sites, leading blogs, and IT companies, all of which converted their homepages to a black screen allowing visitors to learn more about the law. According to organizers, the 7oryanet site garnered over 107,000 page views in less than 24 hours, while managing to maneuver past several DDoS attacks from China-based IP addresses that brought the site down for nearly 40 minutes. Activists and Internet users also took to Twitter to raise awareness of the blackout through the hashtag #blackoutjo, which even managed to attract the attention of Queen Noor. Meanwhile, journalists and editors-in-chief of news sites held a protest outside parliament, urging members of the lower house to reject the amendments, despite earlier denials by the government that the amendments did not impose restrictions on online media.

According to one news site, King Abdullah, who is traditionally noted for proclaiming "the sky is the limit" when it comes to free speech, supposedly followed the online blackout, and privately voiced his discontent with the government's introduction of the amendments. In parallel, Minister of ICT Atef Al Tal edged away from the ministry's earlier stance and declared the following morning that any banning of porn sites would not necessarily be restrictive, suggesting that users wanting full access would request it from their ISP. Al Tal claimed the underlying policy of a potential telecommunications law regarding porn sites would seek to move in line with the country's moral standards rather than impose restrictions on freedoms.

Between amendments to the Press and Publications law targeting news sites, and an expected telecommunications law targeting pornography sites, Jordan's Internet is undoubtedly facing an unprecedented onslaught from the government. While the outcome of the legislative process remains to be seen over the coming days and weeks, one thing is clear: perceptions of Jordan as a model of relative online freedom have taken a hit, and the kingdom may stand the risk of joining the league of its Internet enemy peers in the region.

Naseem Tarawnah is the writer behind the Jordanian political blog, the Black Iris, and executive director of citizen media organization 7iber. Follow him at twitter.com/tarawnah.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages

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