An Egyptian hotline using text messages to censor the free press – Screen Shot
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An Egyptian hotline using text messages to censor the free press

In an attempt to regulate the free press, The Office of Public Prosecutions of Egypt launched a hotline that allows the public to report via WhatsApp, text or instant messaging, any information that it deems to be inciting, a threat to public security or that could cause harm to the public interest with the target being both traditional and new media. The judiciary has also been tasked with monitoring websites and social media accounts, prosecuting any ‘peddlers of fictitious news’—as to the opinion of the government.

“A set of mobile telephone numbers are assigned to receive complaints on the instant messaging on WhatsApp. The sent messages should contain all information available on the reported fake news”, the statement from the prosecution reads. And in order to restrict free speech on social media in what the government claims is an attempt to protect the data and privacy of its citizens, it has announced plans to launch an Egyptian social media platform that rivals Facebook.

But the avalanche of mediums with which Egypt is monitoring its news has instead been described by liberal media and civil society groups as merely a new way for the government to curtail freedom of expression and threaten journalist, with President Abdel Sisi accused of using state institutions to terrorise dissident voices.

Under the new directive the media is facing a tough time in the country. Dozens of journalists have been arrested with hundreds of websites critical of the government blocked. A Freedom House report indicates that over 400 media and NGO websites have been closed so far.

In one of the highly publicised cases, the BBC carried a story of 23-year-old A. Adib Zubeida who disappeared in what the broadcaster indicated was the growing list of forced disappearances in the country. Her mother told the BBC that the police had kidnapped her. Days later Zubeida would appear in a local TV station to dispute the BBC story. The government was outraged, accusing the U.K. broadcaster and Western nations of meddling in its affairs and using fake news to achieve political motives. The government termed the BBC report as having been flagrantly fraught with lies and innuendos and accused BBC of “alarming visible non-neutrality and blatant violation of media standards that the BBC is supposed to be on top of media corporations adhering to.” BBC responded saying it stood with the story and was guided by the basic tenets of journalism while pursuing it.

The all-out war on the media as occasioned by the recent attacks and decrees in Egypt has been thinning the democratic space in a country ranked as 161 out of 180 in the 2017 RSF World Press Freedom Index. “After arresting journalists, blocking online media and bringing traditional media outlets under its control, President Sisi’s regime is now inciting the public to be on the watch for supposedly fake news. This new measure by the Egyptian authorities establishes a dangerous climate of denunciation and tightens the gag on media that have already been reduced to silence,” read a statement from Reporters Sans Frontières.

The real danger of the directive and its hotline format is that it is immediate and discreet. Those who have been influenced by the government’s war on the media have been given a tool to censor their fellow citizens, thus instilling not only an atmosphere of government surveillance but also of powerful self-censorship.

This article was originally published by FAIRPLANET and is part of an ongoing content partnership.


Absher, the Saudi wife-tracking app that is legal

By Sanjana Varghese

For many years, women living in Saudi Arabia had to contend with guardianship—essentially, the men in their lives have complete control over where they go, where they study, and whether they are even able to drive or move around freely. That is often contingent on tons of paperwork—applied by the government through an intensely bureaucratic system. Now, an app called Absher, which was created by the Saudi government, digitises that process. It alerts men on the whereabouts of the women they know. Whether they are leaving the country or coming into it (supposedly without their permission), Absher will notify these men, amongst other services which the app offers. It gives men permission to revoke the travelling abilities of the women they are guardians of.

Women in Saudi Arabia, as well as other feminists internationally, have called on Google and Apple to remove these apps from the app store, ever since the issue first gained press coverage. But the app essentially makes a form of oppression and control which already exists in real-life into digital form—for women in Saudi Arabia, it just meant that their request to leave the country or to travel somewhere without a chaperone could be refused faster, rather than getting lost in government bureaucracy or refused a few months later. But this is also part of the larger question—how much do Apple and Google know about the apps that are on their app stores?

This is not the first time that an app with dangerous actual consequences has been brought to the attention of large technology companies. On one hand, there’s the problem of malicious apps—apps with malware that are disguised as other versions of popular apps, like Tinder, or third-party app stores. These are dangerous in a different way than Absher—for example, these apps will steal individual credit card information, or use geotagging information to find out where you are, but they won’t be able to change anything about where you can and can’t go. This is something which security experts have spoken about previously, but it’s a different issue from what is happening with an app like Absher, which is, for all intents and purposes, legal.

In this case however, the problem may have arisen because it’s not immediately obvious that Absher enables this kind of control over women. Absher also hosts a variety of other services, such as passport checks and document scanning, and so it may not have initially been obvious to moderators that the app would be used in this way. As a New York Times article documented in January, women are trying to leave Saudi Arabia in greater numbers than before, partially enabled by technology. Some of them were able to use websites and WhatsApp groups to coordinate with other women, some were even able to use Absher on their male relative’s phones, setting them to let the women travel and escape to safety.  

On a larger scale, apps like Absher proliferate because they aren’t technically illegal. What Absher does violate is international human rights law—but that’s also because the government that’s created it and uses it does too. In this way, trying to remove Absher would potentially cause a firestorm, particularly given the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley, in addition to doing little to change a fundamentally broken system. If large international bodies and other groups haven’t been able to alter the misogynistic system of guardianship, the app being removed from the app store is unlikely to do so.

These problems arise because the process of developing an app and putting it on app stores, both for Apple and Google, are fairly straightforward. Google, in comparison to Apple, which has a strict approval process, has also come under fire for the apps that it lets proliferate on Google Play. A report from WIRED UK found that child-friendly apps that were being sold on Google Play were anything but. The problem of content moderation on the app store is one that Google has had to reckon with, but has done precious little about. This is also different because the government of Saudi Arabia has created the app—making it harder to take down than just reckoning with an app developer.

But Apple and Google do have the ability to intervene and remove apps from their app stores as and when it’s deemed necessary. Recently, in India, TikTok was considered to be a danger and a menace to the population, particularly given how many of the users were under the age of 18. A week later, TikTok was removed from their app stores, over concerns about paedophilia.

After all, Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies towards women are not a state secret—human rights organisations and activists have been raising the alarm about them for years—so it’s unsurprising that this may have passed under the radar. But the fact that companies are enabling this kind of human rights abuse should surely be a cause for concern for anyone who cares about freedom or equality.