Mapping controls on digital information in Jordan

Current View

Executive Summary:

Many aspirations were built on the Internet as a driver for the Jordanian economy when the Internet first arrived in Jordan. In 2000, a national reform across education and the labor market was launched by the royal family to transform the country into the hub of information and communications technology (ICT) in the Middle East. While creating emerging markets dependent on the Internet was the main purpose of this national plan, it also led to the decentralized production of mass media content away from state-controlled media. While the state was committed to promoting an open Internet market, its relationship with regulating the online content went through phases, depending on the unaccounted threats that they posed to the state.

Investing in technology entrepreneurship and content enterprises, and creating an ICT stream in schools and universities was seen as the only way to embark on the economic opportunity that the Internet could bring to the country. As a byproduct of this ICT-infused economy, many Arabic Web social platforms sprung up from Jordan, such as IKBIS, Jeeran, and Maktoob. The latter was sold to Yahoo for 19 million dollars in 2009. By 2012, Jordan ranked forty-seventh in the Networked Readiness Index, and sixth regionally; it became home to 450 ICT companies, and the ICT industry contributed 14% of the country’s GDP. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 75% of the online Arabic language content originated in Jordan.

Aside from a new ICT market, the increased Internet penetration also facilitated a boom of electronic news websites and blogs that often told a different story from that of official mainstream media. These developments paved the way for 400 news websites to emerge by 2013. As the waves of revolutions around the region unfolded, citizens flocked to alternative news sources—Facebook was one of the most visited sites. The era also saw a dramatic increase in Facebook users, which in 2013 reached 2.6 million users in Jordan, of whom 67% were between eighteen and thirty-five years old. In Jordan, the increased penetration rate, the rise in regional oppositional voices, and the rise in Facebook users facilitated the creation of alternative spaces that raised the bar of free expression and publicly questioned the government and the monarchy’s plans for political, economic, and social reform. Many of the issues that were deemed taboo among citizens and mainstream print media were now being tackled and discussed online.

Official attempts to control online speech and expression contradicted the progressive image of an open ICT market in Jordan to encourage global investment. For example, just a year after passing amendments on a press and publication law in Dec 2012 which resulted in blocking 300 websites, king Abdullah II was on a trip to the United States with Jordanian entrepreneurs to promote Jordan as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. The constant effort in ignoring the impact of content controls on the ICT market is often countered by numbers on the shrinking of such market. A survey conducted by the Information and Communication Association of Jordan reported the closure of 100 companies between the years of 2012 and 2013. Press and publication law was considered one of the legislative restrictions attributed to discouraging ICT businesses in Jordan.

In a country that barely survived the political upheaval of the Arab revolutions, and which is currently exhausting all measures to protect its security in the middle of neighbouring turmoil, the conversation about how access to information is governed in Jordan has not yet reached the public domain. This paper attempts to map government-mandated control mechanisms on access to and production of digital content over the past five years ever from the time of the writing this paper. It explores how these controls are strengthening constraints on basic human freedoms, such as expression and privacy—the main freedoms in building any open, democratic, and progressive society.

This paper examines which entities have the power to control access to the Internet, and the production of content online, especially during a period of heightened political awareness and the widespread use of social-networking tools. Our documented cases of censorship and persecution of online speech provide evidence for human-rights entities interested in the politics of regulating online content in Jordan. This research also highlights huge gaps in policy-makers’ understanding of the Internet’s infrastructure and technical design, which is an important issue to take into consideration for future legislation.

Main Findings

  • In Jordan, several public and private entities have overlapping executive and legislative jurisdictions over the production and access of content. As granted by the Press and Publication Law, the director of the Press and Publication department has the jurisdiction to administratively explain the law and list websites that require licensing. Another example is the ISPs’ authority to administratively suspend a service if it is proven to violate public morals or the public conduct. Certain ISPs have practiced de facto blocking on some websites without any official or judiciary request. The lack of a judicial process in regulating content removes citizens’ right to legally challenge the blocking order, given that it was based on the personal diligence of the press and publication director and the ISPs.
  • While some information controls are practised through the rule of law, the most effective are practised informally. The weak system of accountability, the lack of judiciary review, in addition to the unregulated intimidation mechanisms from the intelligence department, intensify self-censorship. The lack of transparency in explaining and applying the laws, and the lack of checks and balances make for uncontested intervention by the Ministry of the Interior, General Intelligence Department, National Information and Technology Center (NITC), and ISPs in access and production of digital information. Surveys report that 85% of journalists avoid writing about topics critical of the regime, religions, and Gulf governors. Responses from surveys and focus groups link surveillance to digital self-censorship. These informal mechanisms of control have proven to be the most effective constraint on information
  • The application of formal blocking requests reflects the extent to which ISPs are participating in applying further controls beyond the minimum requirements of the blocking orders. ISPs’ choice of blocking technique could reflect both their own blocking mentality, and the available technologies and equipment in the ISPs network that could stand between the user and the website that s/he attempts to access.  We also detected the use of a more complicated technique on one ISP which injected fraudulent TCP reset packets to block access to websites. This technique is less transparent to the average user and reflects a greater technical sophistication than DNS tampering.
  • Legislations regulating online content lack technical understanding of the Internet’s working and make for a confused application of law. For example,  the attempt to draw local borders on digital content in an interconnected network have intensified the labor needed to categorize emerging websites to electronic websites that require licensing and implement a blocking order. Information Crimes Systems law is another place this gap in legal terminologies and technical realities of the Internet is present. The law criminalizes any illegal or unauthorized entry to a website—any website. This disregards the essential feature of websites being public in their nature without requiring an authorization for access. All efforts to apply the law on what is defined as local still do not guarantee a solid implementation.
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