Strict Iraqi Internet Law Curtails Free Speech

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An Iraqi police officer searches a car in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo: AFP - Getty - Spencer Platt)

By: Jillian C. York

Published Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Surrounded primarily by well-wired states, Iraq is a bit of an anomaly. While neighboring Jordan, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all boast Internet penetration rates over 30 percent (with the latter three all higher than 40 percent), by most accounts, Iraq’s population of Internet users has stagnated, with Internet penetration rates remaining under 5 percent since 2003, when the general population first gained access to the Internet.

While the US-led occupation is widely credited with ushering in a certain degree of press freedom following the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has at the same time done little to contribute to technological growth in the country. Though a new undersea cable promises to expand Internet access – “to 50 percent within two years” according to a claim from the Iraqi communications minister – new regulations threaten to stifle its usage.

Freedom of Expression?

In 2009, the Iraqi government laid out its plan to censor both online and offline content, specifically content relating to drugs, terrorism, gambling, and pornography, and “negative remarks about Islam.” Internet cafés were to register with authorities or face closure, and “monitoring” was to be conducted on networks. While research suggests that the plan to block selected websites was never implemented, a new bill threatens to change all of that.

According to a translation from the Centre for Law and Democracy, the proposed Information Technology Crimes Act would impose an array of harsh punishments. These range from “temporary or life imprisonment,” or a fine of up to 50 million Iraqi dinars (approximately US$43,000, or 11 times the average GDP per capita), for the vaguely-worded crime of “[creating] chaos in order to weaken the trust of the electronic system of the state,” to mandatory life imprisonment for creating a website with the intent to “implement programs or ideas which are disruptive to public order.”

Other articles of the act aim to provide legal protection for the "legitimate use of computers and information networks" and to "punish the perpetrators of acts which violate the rights of users whether they may be individuals or legal entities." Additional alarming elements of the act include provisions to punish those who utilize information networks to "provoke or promote armed disobedience," "disturb public order or harm the reputation of the country," or "intrudes, annoys, or calls computer and information network users without authorization or hinders their use."

Regulation of the Internet in Iraq is sorely needed on certain issues – including several covered by the proposed act – but, as a report by the rights group Access asserts, the bill as it currently stands is vaguely worded, too broad, and overly harsh.

Space For Change

Across the region, leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the Internet’s potential, as well as the threats it can pose to their stability. In addition to the new Iraqi bill, this year has already seen new regulatory proposals in Lebanon, as well as a court order in Egypt to ban online pornography, and an ongoing debate in Tunisia on the same issue. In the autocratic Gulf states, rulers have simply chosen to arrest those deemed too vocal online. Examples of this include the persecution and later extradition of Hamza Kashgari in Saudi Arabia, various arrests for social media postings in Oman, the UAE, and Kuwait.

Iraq is therefore not alone in shifting from traditional censorship (which online generally means blocking access to websites) to more insidious methods of silencing speech. In addition to the bill, there is evidence that the country has the capability to surveil citizens. In 2009, Iraq’s communications ministry stated that it had signed a deal with a French company to install a “security system” on online networks, and in late 2011, reports emerged that spygear sold by US company Blue Coat to Iraq’s communications ministry had ended up in Syria.

Though Iraq’s Internet penetration remains low for the region – often placing the country outside of the realm of concern for rights activists – two things are certain: Iraqis are increasingly using the Internet and this proposed Act would severely limit their ability to do so. While regulation of the Internet is at times necessary, the Iraqi Parliament must weigh the human rights implications of the act with the genuine security needs of their country and engage with civil society to ensure any regulation they do create is both fair and sustainable.

Jillian C. York is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes for and is a board member at Global Voices.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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