How digital content is controlled in Jordan

July 1, 2015

By Reem AlMasri

In every global conference or forum attended by international investors, Jordanian officials tirelessly promote Jordan as the ICT hub of the region. Their favorite line? “Seventy-five percent of the Arabic content of the internet flows from Jordan’s tech sector”. This unattributed indicator appears in Jordanian officials’ speeches at Davos 2015, the 2014 Innovative Jordan Conference, the 2013 Jordan-US Business Forum, and even Thomas Friedman’s article from 2012 raving about Jordan’s ICT entrepreneurship scene.

What the official narrative fails to mention is that, since 2012, the State has taken active steps to tighten its grip on digital speech through formal and informal controls. In 2015, the Cyber Crimes Law was amended to allow police to “confiscate devices, tools, applications, operating systems, the web, and all methods used to commit any listed crimes and keep all information relevant to committing any crimes”. In 2014, the anti-terrorism law was amended to penalize “the use of information systems, or the information network, or any other publishing or media tool, or establishment of a website to facilitate the conduct of terrorist acts or support terrorist groups.” Prior to that, in 2013, hundreds of websites were blocked by the Publication Department (now merged with the Audio Visual Commission to form the Media Commission) for not meeting the licensing requirements in the amended press and publication law, passed in September 2012.

Looking at these parallel events, one might think that the concurrency of promoting the Kingdom as an attractive destination for investments in Arabic content online while at the same time penalising digital expression in Jordan, is a byproduct of contradicting visions of uncommunicative entities. However, recent history teaches us that what seems to be a contradiction is in fact a continuation of the dominant policy of “allowing, but within boundaries”.

Potential international investors are subjected to a deliberate discourse that disassociates the development of the ICT market from the development of Internet freedoms.  What this discourse omits is the fact that tech-savvy youth, the ones the State takes pride in for their use of the internet and social media, and their entrepreneurial drive in the Arabic content market, are restricted in what they are allowed to navigate digitally. It fails to mention that a “news” website has to get a permission from the government to be accessible in Jordan. It omits the fact that 100 ICT companies left the market in 2011, and 2012, among them were content producers, that closed due to bulk of amendments on laws like the Income Tax Law and the Press and Publications Law. And of course, this narrative makes no mention of the dozens of citizens who, in 2014 and 2015, were prosecuted in the State Security Court for political speech expressed on social media platforms, charged with crimes like “disrupting friendly relations with another country”, and “lengthening the tongue”.

This pattern of “allowing but restricting” is one aspect of state control of the production and consumption of information that “Mapping Faces of Digital Control in Jordan”, a new research by 7iber, aimed to explore and highlight. We found that these mechanisms of control do not only involve the government, but also the private sector – the Internet Service Provider –  which is the main driving force setting the infrastructure needed for a “vibrant” ICT market.

Formal and informal Controls on digital information in Jordan:  the jurisdiction of ISPs

In addition to the formal legislative control mechanisms, this paper explored the extent to which ISPs can practice control over content. The application of formal blocking requests is one layer of control. However,  the choice over which blocking technique to use in order to respond to such requests is another. Performing a series of technical tests on Mada, Zain, Orange and Umniah using 182 URLs of Jordanian websites, 7iber’s research team found that:

  • Orange, Umniah and Mada mainly used DNS tampering to block websites, which is the easiest censorship method to circumvent because users can configure their computers to use an alternative DNS service or access websites directly by IP address.
  • Mada and Umniah used multiple techniques to filter. In addition to DNS tampering, Mada entirely blocked three IP addresses, and Umniah 35 addresses to prevent any traffic from reaching the server of the censored website. With this method, the use of an alternative DNS service to circumvent DNS tampering would not be effective, since all traffic between the client and censored server is blocked.
  • Zain Jo used a blocking technique known as TCP reset packet injection to block 75 websites. In this method of censorship, a middlebox (a device located between the user and the censored web server) injects a fraudulent reset packet signalling both the client and server to sever the connection. This is a less common method of filtering because it is more technically intensive than other methods. This method cannot be circumvented by changing DNS settings.

The full list of blocked URLs can be found here.

Choosing to apply DNS tampering is a way to relieve the ISP from legal liability. It also leaves space for users to choose different features of the Internet that grant them access to any content. On the other hand, using a more complex technique, like TCP reset, reflects a sophisticated approach used by the ISP to gain full control over monitoring traffic and accessing data.

Considering these control mechanisms, local companies often choose to host their websites on servers located outside Jordan. In this case, if the Media Commission wants to block access to them, the only thing to be done is prevent users in Jordan from accessing them. However, if they were hosted on servers inside Jordan, the head of the Media Commission has the authority to order the website’s entire deletion.

“Mapping Faces of Digital Control in Jordan” aims to classify mechanisms of regulating and controlling digital content, to formal and informal. It highlights the jurisdictions that different entities have over the access or the production of content, especially in the digital media scene. These controls have drastic impact on both social and economic development, and as such, on the positioning Jordan as a regional ICT hub. In this paper we explain how Jordan’s youth, described by King Abdullah as “active users of the internet, social media with knowledge on regional demand for content, apps, and platforms”, are only one part of the formula. The potential for digital innovation requires an ecology that fosters free production of and access to digital content, an ecology that Jordan, with its current state, as this paper shows, is far from achieving.

 

This research was supported by the Cyber Stewards Network with aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

 

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