By Dana Gibreel and Reem AlMasri
Translated by James Cain
We have to admit that the second half of the last year saw a large number of battles on social media, which stoked racist and religiously discriminatory tendencies, shocking many of us. But we also should admit that if it wasn’t for social media, we as citizens would not know the critical details of the events which took place over the last three or four months.
The government flounders whenever it faces new technologies which are out of its control, and we find, as always, it dismisses the economic and social opportunities of such technologies for the sake of restoring control over the space they occupy. We saw that in the banning of aerial drones and 3-D printers, and in the imposition of website licensing, and now in the attempt to control social media, the digital space which has revealed the government’s shortcomings.
In a statement in the newspaper Al-Ghad, we were told by a spokesperson for the Jordanian government, Mohammad Al-Moumuni, that his government, through issuing of a whole new law, had found the solution for the regulation of this space. Al-Moumuni says that this law will make it possible for the government to stop those who use social media to spread “hate speech, sedition, incitement and to disturb public order.”
Social media is to blame at every deadlock – that is the logic of the state here. And so, whenever social media reveals the failings of the state in the administration of public affairs, the state raises its fingers to threaten the users of Twitter or Facebook, accusing them of publishing rumors and dissent.
Recently, heated conversations taking place on social media platforms have revolved around whether the events that took place in Karak revealed the negligence of the Ministry of the Interior. This led parliament to consider a proposed vote of no confidence in the former minister for the Interior, Salameh Hammad. But, after 14 hours with scarcely any information being released by the government, Al-Moumuni declared in a press conference that we should refrain from feeding the rumours circulating on social media, ignoring the fact that the rumours only came out in the absence of any official information and that the first false information about the identity of the terrorists came from licensed media.
We cannot deny that social media platforms are exactly like any other space in so far as that they contain both positive and abusive content. And just as murderers are held accountable for their crimes, whether committed with a gun or a knife, so too should all those whose speech causes harm to others, regardless of whether this speech is found in a courtyard or shouted through a loudspeaker or broadcast through a television programme. But do we see a specialised law targeting just those murders committed with a knife? Or a specialised law targeting just the defamation, sexual blackmail and hate speech which is conducted through a loudspeaker? If the answer is ‘no’, then why did the government decide to specialise a law to criminalise the means through which criminal acts can occur, social media sites, rather than targeting the actual criminal acts themselves?
The fact that the government is giving legal validity to the monitoring and even prosecution of those publishing “abusive” speech, without there needing to be any complaint from a victim, demonstrates nothing more than the self-installation of the government as custodian over all speech broadcasted through social media; where the failings of the state are revealed.
Al-Moumuni also stated that the plan for the law “will put the responsibility on the telecommunication companies to identify the owners of abusive accounts and to intercept them”. This statement raises many concerns. First of all, it pushes telecom companies towards violating the right enshrined in item 8 of the constitution which guarantees citizens the privacy of their communications, which can only be shared in the case of a court order. Secondly, telecom companies offer the internet in exchange for the amount paid by their customers. Making them bear the legal responsibility for whatever users do on the network is like holding a contractor responsible for any traffic accidents that occur on roads they maintain. Thirdly, the statement makes clear the government’s lack of understanding of the complexity of the technology which governs the space it is so desperate to exert control over. Through https encryption, which the internet economy and users themselves rely on, it’s not possible for telecom companies to identify the owners of abusive accounts or the locations from where tweets are published, without adopting very expensive spy systems. And without that, telecom companies will not be able to do anything other than request that information from the owners of such websites themselves, clashing with the policies of Facebook and Twitter, which require a court order to be issued before disclosing a user’s personal information.
In its development of such a proposal, the government is linking hate speech and racism solely to the existence of social media platforms, and not to any social or political problems which have arisen due to the failings of the State. Why isn’t the government simply leaving its citizens to exercise their right to make legal complaints against abusive speech, instead of installing itself as the overseer of this speech? If the government was really serious about tackling this discrimination and hatred, why did it not stop article writers which demanded that the identity of a someone who killed their mother should be determined to see if they were really Jordanian or just “the son of a Jordanian woman”, and recently described US President-Elect Trump as magnanimous because “contempt for women” was among his advantages?
Is current legislation fundamentally effective?
It is difficult to subject social media platforms to regulation according to the standards of the government in determining the definition of abuse and in determining those responsible for it. Consequently, the best mechanism for regulating these platforms, if the goal is the protection of society, would be self-regulation by the users, meaning that users themselves should feel and understand the importance of reporting abuse and that they know what legal options are available to hold abusive users to account. Promoting current legislation, or empowering citizens through it, will also have an impact on speech outside of social media, in terms of rejecting hatred, racism and discrimination.
In a statement to Petra News Agency, legal adviser to the Journalists’ Association, lawyer Mahmoud Qteishat, called for intensive courses on how to deal with digital media to be given to judges. “The provisions criminalising hate speech on social media are sufficient, however it is difficult to prove offense, linking the perpetrator to the act, in a court of law, which means many crimes go unpunished,” Qteishat said. This means that any potential legislation relating to social media will not bring anything new to the current laws. This may be another reason for believing that this whole process is a mere reaction to certain events. The director of the Bureau for Legislation and Opinion had already announced on a social media account that a new legislation to fight hate speech had almost been completed, one day after the killing of Nahed Hattar, then it was not heard of afterwards.
Similarly, the chief public prosecutor circulated a ban on publishing social media comments “neither approving nor disapproving” of the decision to arrest a suspect in a certain case, before then re-releasing him. This circulation came at a time when commentators didn’t approve or disapprove of the action with the intention to influence the court proceedings, but because they lacked information. Perhaps legal proceedings could first be clarified to people, explaining that their comments affect the secrecy of investigations and can be in violation of the law of contempt of court thus exposing them to legal accountability, but instead, as happens after every crime in Jordan, we read a complete disarray of information, and the ban on speech becomes the first resort. Subsequently, this may explain failing to make complaints about opinion articles in official newspapers which include hate speech, discrimination and incite violence, because people do not feel that they can be a part of a justice system, which fails to explain its laws to them.
Leadership in this sector is stifling
Speaking Thursday morning on Jordan Television, Al-Moumuni promised that Jordan would be world leader “in this field” without it really being known what he meant by this area. Did he mean that we would excel in the sheer amount of legislation to be enacted by the affair itself? Or in the field of freedom of expression, where global indicators do not show any progress to have been made in Jordan? Or in the level of information technology, for which the state does not occupy any global position with the exception of individual innovations not receiving governmental support? The government was unable to prevent cheating in the tawjihi exams through any means other than blocking WhatsApp services in all areas surrounding schools during these exams. It has been unable to prevent telecom companies from blocking WhatsApp calls through 4G networks. Yet, the government wishes to reach a leading global position in the regulation of social networking sites.
The government does not cease to play the card of security and safety. There is no doubt that this is a basic requirement for all people, and the often daunting technological revolution may have increased the risks, but this should lead us to inject new blood to keep pace with these new challenges, creating modern regulatory solutions that originate in the core of this technological environment, rather than continuing to support a conservative approach which has censorship as its only tool.
In a previous article on 7iber about 3D printers, Akram Al-Hamoud says “I believe most of us still remember the ban which was imposed on colour laser printers, and on GPS devices, and binoculars, and telescopes, and list goes on and on. Now most smart devices come equipped with GPS and colour laser printers are routinely sold. Put simply, no matter what you try, nobody can halt the progress of technology. All they do is obstruct us and wasting precious years of our lives in waiting … Jordan in all its youth is the only real loser when it comes to obstructions in the path of technological advancement.”