Cyber Crime Law: How does the government control the online platform?

January 30, 2018
Photo by: Glenn Carstens-Peters

By Reem Almasri, translated by Hani Barghouthi.

 “I don’t owe you electricity or water,” is the phrase with which a Jordanian citizen addressed Prime Minister Hani Mulki while smashing the water and electricity meters in his house in the Tafilah governorate. This moment of protest against the taxes and spiked prices of Mulki’s government was caught on video last November. The video circulated on social media, eventually warranting the man’s arrest according to the prosecutor, who also charged him with “stirring sedition via social media,” an article in the Cyber Crime Law.

The same law was cited when a complaint was filed against cartoonist Emad Hajjaj, after the latter had published one of his cartoons on his personal profile on Facebook. He was then summoned by Criminal Investigation for questioning at the behest of the prosecutor.

The same law was once again cited when the DA arrested 7 journalists after Royal Court Secretary General Yousef Issawi filed a complaint against them for publicising on Facebook information about his properties.

The Cyber Crime Law  was implemented in 2015, and is an updated edition of the “Information System Crime Law” which government passed as a temporary law in 2010, due to the absence of a Parliament at the time. The pretext for dedicating a law to Internet-based crimes was “ending violations of tangible and intangible rights,” implying that web-based crime is inherently different from crimes committed on other platforms. It implied that blackmail in the form of a paper left under the door is not the same as blackmail through a Facebook message, and that technological advancement for the Internet and its content created the need for a specific law against crimes committed using it. Since then, the state has adopted a negative rhetoric in regards to the Internet and social media, narrowing them to digital spaces rife with rumors and crimes, and ignoring their role in economic and creative development in society.

This rhetoric is revisited every time Internet users in Jordan express anger and disdain against governmental decisions. With this new edition of the law, an article was added to specifically punish web-based slander and libel. Today, several amendments littered with generalizations and technologically ambiguous terms are being proposed to intensify punishments for cyber crimes in the law.1

I try in this piece to analyse the proposed amended Cyber Crime Law, which is among the laws pending Parliamentary debate on their current agenda.

Internet users: guilty of “hate speech” until proven innocent

Any one of the following, if posted on the “Internet” or “website” or “information systems,” will initiate the poster’s path to prison: a joke mocking the citizens of a certain city, academic research studying the relationship between tribes and state, or an article criticising rhetoric that demonises a certain denomination. The prison sentence, according to the proposed law, is a minimum of one year, with a monetary fine of at least 5,000JD.

Also according to the proposed law, the mere possibility of your rhetoric insulting persons or groups would be enough to slap a “stirring sedition” charge on you, regardless of actual damage caused by the joke, or how influential your position in society or on platform. The law does not distinguish between publishing on a public site or on a Whatsapp group, or even on a personal computer, considering it among “programmes and tools perpetrating the creation of data or information,” according to the definition of Information Systems within the law.

The proposed law defines “hate speech” as “any saying or action that can stir sedition or offend religious, denominational, racial, or regional sensitivities, or discriminates between persons or groups.” It also proposes a minimum sentence of one year, and a maximum of three years, or fines ranging between 5,000 and 10,000 JD.

Due to the absence of public discourse regarding specific standards of harmful speech that warrant legal action, classifying any speech as “hate speech” will be yet another tool to impose more restrictions on freedom of expression under the guise of protecting groups. This will lead to even more self-censorship by Internet users on their posts out of fear of misinterpretation. To put this definition in perspective, we need only regard the accusations of “stirring sedition” made against the late Nahed Hatter and Emad Hajjaj, who both posted cartoons some deemed “offensive.”

State commands all

The current law criminalises sending and sharing pornographic material intended to sexually exploit incapacitated persons, or persons who lack agency. If a defendant sends or shares materials depicting “those who have not turned 18 (minors),” they will be punished with a prison sentence of no less than three months, and no more than a year, with a fine ranging between 300 and 5,000JD. This can be increased to a prison sentence of at least two years, and a fine of 1000-5000 JD if the defendant “produces, prepares, keeps, edits, displays, prints, distributes, or advertises pornographic works of activities” from the same group, as well as “mentally handicapped” persons.

As for the proposed amendments, they include striking the specification of minors and mentally disabled persons, and doubling the minimum prison sentence to six months, and increasing the fine to 1000-5000 JD. This means that she who sends an “adult joke” to her friends, or he who wants to consume sexual content, or the artist who decides to include sexuality in their works are subject to at least six months’ imprisonment with a 1000 JD fine.

The state continues to strip adult citizens of their agency in choosing content by categorising content into “good” and “bad,” and stripping the audience of its right to evaluate content for themselves. This forced custody of online content started with the 2012 amendments to the Press and Publication Law which requires websites to apply for permission (or a licence) from Jordan’s Media Commission. The application process involves difficult requirements, but websites risk getting blocked if they are not licensed. These proposed amendments passed despite public opposition in the form of several campaigns rejecting government censorship of any type of content, be it media or “adult.”

Through this censorship, the state monopolises the right to determine which concepts and thoughts are “acceptable” and which are “unacceptable,” both politically and morally, and makes it easy to ban, for example, scientific websites that provide sexual health information.

One can also imagine the benefit this incurs for the government, which would be able to find a legal outlet that justifies arresting politically annoying people without tarnishing its records on various freedoms: It only needs to look through their phones in search of a joke or a “dirty” picture and deem them outlaws.

Criminalising the online platform

The “Cyber Crime Law” naturally deals exclusively with crimes that happen online, as if these crimes change as technological advancements in communication change. For example, even though the Jordan Penal Code2 criminalises libel, slander, and humiliation if committed “on any form of print and publication,” the Cyber Crime Law insists on allocating a more severe punishment when the crimes are committed online. The sentence for slander if done via megaphone is one week according to the Penal Code, whereas the same crime incites a sentence of three months if done via “Information Networks.” Where the Penal Code excludes “redistribution” from the list of criminal acts, under certain conditions, the Cyber Crime Law criminalises it.3 This means that a person who shares an article suspected of “libel, slander, or humiliation” is equally guilty as the writer of that article, according to the proposed amendments. The law thereby expands the base of potential defendants, by assigning punishments to websites, some of which are visited by millions in Jordan who use them to express their opinions, imposing a kind of self-censorship out of fear of legal action.

Moreover, the proposed amendment calls for more severe punishments for Internet crimes, suggesting to double all prison sentences in the current Law with a minimum of three months, to six months in the proposed law. It also proposes raising the maximum sentence from one year to two or three. In the same vein, it proposes amending all fines to range from 500 to 1000 JD, where their original minimum was 200JDs. According to the proposed law, anyone who commits a crime by “accessing the web or information systems in any form without a permit, or in violation of the permit” is liable to at least six months in prison and a fine of at least 500JD.

Powers of the judicial authorities

The Cyber Crime Law allows “employees of judicial authorities, upon receiving permission from the specialised prosecutor or court, to enter any location suspect of being used to commit any of the crimes stated in this law. They are also permitted to search devices, tools, programmes, operating systems, and the web which are suspected of being used to commit any of said crimes.”

The proposed amendment includes adding the word “search” after “enter” in the previous text in order to widen the scope of “locations” that can be searched (devices, applications, and homes). It also includes giving more authority to the prosecutor, allowing them to confiscate devices and tools, and allowing them to cease and desist the work of any information system or website that was used to commit crimes included in the law. This means that the prosecutor of the State Security Court, which is not recognised internationally, will have the authority to enter and search without being held accountable.

Lawmakers could have consulted the “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance” if they were interested in adopting standards that limit abuse of privacy and human rights when combating cyber crime and terrorism. The principles, announced by more than one hundred international civil society organisations and signed by more than five hundred in response to the Snowden Files, stipulate that search, entry, or tracking warrants be issued by the judge of a civil court. It further stipulates that the warrant should, whenever possible, specify the type, size, and period of production of data, and prove its relevance to the crime.

With the context of limitations on political activity and systematic restrictions on debates, seminars, and media websites in the name of rule of law, social media platforms are nearly the sole outlet for Jordanians to engage in public discourse. Furthermore, these spaces are often the only source of information regarding pivotal events on which official comments are delayed, such as the videos distributed with details on the security operation to counter the terrorist incident in Al Karak. Much like reducing knives to “murder weapons” and ignoring their use as a kitchen tool and to make other areas of life simpler, the state reduces the Internet to social media platforms rife with a different class of crimes for which a specific law has been passed despite the pre-existing Penal Code, which covers them in the first place.

The consolidation of self-censorship is a magical solution to the state’s logistical and technological struggle to control a network to which 76% of Jordan’s population has access, which surpasses geographic borders and is controlled by the policies of foreign companies. The state first comes up with laws that almost criminalise the platform by imposing stricter punishments for crimes committed through it. Then, a group of citizens are scapegoated and become a cautionary tale, and the government arrests them based on this law whenever it gets the chance. Instead of occupying itself with consolidating access to this network as a right to every one of Jordan’s citizens, the state instead keeps busy by innovating new methods to control the network and destroy its capabilities.

  • Footnotes

     1) The law defines websites as “space that avails information on the information network and has a specific address.” The lawmaker attempts to distinguish websites through their IP address trait. This definition ignores the essence of the internet network and its TCP/IP protocol, through which any device that connects to the network has a unique IP address regardless of its function (personal computers, servers, routers, mobile phones, etc.) and that each of these devices is a “space” through which data is transferred, and made available. Then the law moves to identify “information network” as a “connection between more than one information system with the purpose of availing and retrieving information and data.” The definition reduced the Internet, with its seven visible and invisible layers, to one unidentifiable layer that “connects information systems” without considering infrastructure, applications, and network layers. And because the law identifies “Information systems” as “the group of programs and tools that are made to create information and data,” your home network between your personal computer and printer will apply to the “information network” definition, which is meant to identify the “internet.” It will also apply to your personal banking website that connects your financial data with the database of your personal bills (E-Fawateerkom). This way, definitions of systems, networks and websites overlap

    2) Article (198); Article (359) punishes slander in any of the cases mentioned in articles (188,189), and humiliation in the cases mentioned in article (190), with imprisonment of one week to three months, or a fine of 5 to 25 JD.

    3) Article (198); Article (198); 2.b.: Publishing any material that includes libel or slander is illegal unless the subject of the libel or slander is excluded from consideration for one of the following reasons: if the subject is an exact copy or summary of pre-published material and that material was excluded from consideration pursuant to this article.