Know your e-rights: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Cybercrime Bureau
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Monday, January 5, 2015
The ongoing encroachment on electronic and digital rights by the Lebanese authorities is one of the many challenges facing the public today. Digital rights are defined as the human rights that allow individuals to access, use, create, and share digital media through communication tools like smart phones or computers. In order to form a defense against such abuses, Al-Akhbar English has compiled a beginner's guide that highlights basic e-rights in Lebanon.
Our societies are continuously being shaped and influenced by the proliferation of Internet access, smart phones, social media, and the like. These tools have provided great opportunities for people to express themselves, connect with each other, and share information instantly and across borders. On the other hand, these tools have allowed governments, corporations, and a multitude of entities to infringe on the public's privacy and silence various forms of dissent.
In the West Asia and North African region, laws and legislation covering the digital realm tend to be either archaic or non-existent. Any new laws and amendments that have surfaced on the topic has mainly been geared toward censorship, surveillance, and control – Lebanon is no exception to this trend.
Yet, law is a double-edged sword for authorities and the public. While it has been used to further control and power by authorities, for the public, law – if used intelligently – can be wielded in a manner that resists abuses. Accordingly, it is vital to first know one's rights in this system, then take additional steps to safeguard them. Grasping the contours of these rights is not only useful in challenging misconduct where it occurs, but can also reveal gaps within legislation, and which rights can be asserted, reinforced, and broadened.
The following is a basic guide to our e-rights in Lebanon – using information obtained from online sources and through discussions with activists and legal experts – that outlines domestic and international legislation governing digital rights in Lebanon. The guide seeks to offer a beginner’s introduction to the topic in the hope that others can build on it.
What authorities can and cannot do
Security institutions and other authorities in Lebanon have committed infractions, both small and large, in violation of domestic and international laws. The following intends to clarify what authorities can or cannot do legally in relation to digital rights.
What is the Cybercrime Bureau?
The Cybercrime Bureau, or officially the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau, was established through illegal protocols by means of memorandum 204/609 in 2006. Its establishment is considered illegal because it was instituted without a decree; in addition, a restructuring of the Internal Security Forces to match the needs of combating cybercrime was never carried out.
Furthermore, “combating cybercrime” lacks clear legal explanation in Lebanon and has evolved to include all complaints related to Internet use. This is especially being further by the fact that various public prosecutor offices throughout Lebanon are referring all cases related to Internet use to the Cybercrime Bureau. Their references to cybercrime run counter to the norms presented by the Press and Publications Laws, and have facilitated the Bureau's abuse of its powers. The problem here is a lack of oversight of the Bureau's activity and violations.
As it stands, a citizen’s only recourse hinges on their ability to publicize the abuse they are being subjected to by the Bureau. While there is some power in going public and raising awareness, this tactic has so far only succeeded in exonerating individuals rather than changing official conduct.
What kinds of activities can the Cybercrime Bureau investigate?
Legally, the Bureau can only go after cybercrimes related to electronic monetary fraud and theft, intellectual property rights, and child pornography. However, in relation to speech on social media, the Bureau has called in individuals – backed by orders from the general prosecutor – merely for expressing their opinion online or sharing articles, an act legal theorists and activists consider a major threat to freedom of expression and privacy online.
Can I refuse to go to the Cybercrime Bureau over an online statement I wrote?
Technically, one can refuse to be investigated by the Bureau for an online statement published on a blog or on a social media platform, as was the case of journalist Mohannad Haj Ali. While Ali’s ability to fend off pressure from the security forces is exceptional, most private citizens are forced to sign confessions through intimidation, physical and verbal abuse, and other forms of threats by security forces.
Can security and police forces access information from my phone?
According to Law 140, security and intelligence forces cannot conduct any type of wiretapping into your phone, emails, and messages without a clear court order.
Can they access information on my phone after I've been arrested?
Police and security personnel are not legally allowed to go through the mobile phones of individuals they have arrested. They can only do so after receiving a written and justified court order by an investigating judge. Any evidence gathered through an illegal search cannot be used as evidence in court.
This has been commonly violated by security forces in their arrests, most recently after the raid of the Hammam al-Agha in August, in which the security forces searched through the detainees’ messaging apps, photos, and other data. These kinds of actions are intended to harass suspects, sow fear, and represent a blunt abuse of power.
Can I be charged for sharing a potentially controversial post or tweet on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites?
It really depends on the nature of the controversial post, but generally you cannot be held accountable for “sharing” material on a social media site. The burden is placed on the person who wrote and published the post, and not on those who share it.
And yet, this has not stopped authorities at the Cybercrime Bureau from charging individuals for sharing “provocative” posts, as in the case of 21-year-old Kareem Hawwa. To be clear, most of the investigations and crackdowns are justified as attempts to combat defamation, threats to national security, and sectarian strife – these are common excuses to curtailing free expression. The line between defamation, or libel, and actually freedom of expression is incredibly thin, and frankly dependent on many factors. This, however, is where lawyers and the public need to interfere to define these parameters rather than leave it up to the government and security institutions, who, in recent memory, have played a negative and constraining role.
What should I be mainly aware of in terms of my digital rights?
Other than the domestic and international laws outlined above, you should be vigilant about how digital activity is being investigated or prosecuted. If you are targeted by the Cybercrime Bureau, ask if the officers have warrants to search your phones, computers, and other electronic devices, ask what crime you are being charged with, and make sure you ask to have a lawyer present with you at all times.
The security personnel tend to be ill-informed about what they can or cannot do and will attempt to get a confession out of you in any way possible, so be vigilant of these tactics. Most cases tend to eventually be thrown out of court due to serious infractions by security forces.
Overall, there are no clear cut and up-to-date laws governing and defining online activity in Lebanon so the matter is decided by other variables such as how the investigation was conducted, the nature of the alleged infractions, who the judge is, and the skills of your lawyer. The lack of general knowledge about online space, coupled with a lack of a definition of “cybercrime,” are the central factors in curtailing and criminalizing online activity within the current Lebanese legal system.
Tactics to assert and safeguard digital rights
Other than being familiar with the law, there are a number of tactics available for Lebanese citizens and other residents to keep in mind to protect their digital rights.
Knowing the state of the debate in Lebanon, the region, and world wide is extremely valuable. Educate yourself not only about the key issues, but how these issues are evolving and being handled in different places. Organizations, especially local ones, such as the Social Media Exchange,, Legal Agenda, and Maharat Foundation, among others, are valuable sources of information and offer ideas for action in terms of your legal, digital, and human rights in Lebanon.
In an age of expanding governmental abuse and surveillance, especially in light of the global surveillance exposed by the Snowden leaks, users should seriously consider using encryption and other tools that ensure privacy when surfing the Internet, emailing, or chatting.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a comprehensive guide on these tools and instructions on how to use them. They range from VPNs to encrypted email services to private messenger apps on smart phones.
Recent history has shown that governments and authorities in the region (and elsewhere) do not drive digital rights legislation in pursuit of the greater good. Similarly, security and intelligence forces rarely act in the service and protection of all citizens and all residents of Lebanon.
Action is key to counteract this state of affairs. Participate in discussions about digital rights, whether in public forums or at home with family and friends. Most important, join protests for freedom of expression, or ones that highlight cases of abuse by authorities.
One recent example of action is a campaign last June by a number of civil society organizations that involved releasing a 135-foot blimp above a NSA listening station in the US state of Utah, complemented by a new website that outlines what each American politician’s stance is on spying, as well as a petition for American citizens to sign up against surveillance.
Having boots on the ground or being involved in a digital protest on social media is effective, and the larger the protest, the more it will force authorities to seriously reconsider their actions. This does not mean that change will occur immediately, but action, at the very least, can bring attention to important issues and lays the foundation for change in the future.
The struggle for digital rights is part and parcel of a larger struggle for liberty and dignity in Lebanon, the region, and the world. You need to participate in one way or another to protect your rights and ensure they are not eroded over time.
Overview of key domestic and international laws
The Lebanese Constitution is the foundation for most of the laws governing the country. Adopted on May 1926, the constitution is a 23-page document that draws on its Arab, Ottoman, and French influences. The relevant section in terms of digital rights is Chapter Two of the Constitution, in which the rights and duties of the Lebanese citizen are presented through Articles 6-15.
Lebanese citizens are “equal before the law,” “equally enjoy civil and political rights,” and are “equally bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction.” Their individual liberty is “guaranteed and protected by law” and no one may be arrested, imprisoned, or kept in custody “except in accordance to the provisions of the law.” Offense or penalties imposed by the Lebanese authorities can only be done by law.
Notably, the Lebanese citizen has the freedom to express their opinion orally or in writing, and the freedom of press, assembly, and association, all “guaranteed within the limits established by law.”
A handful of Lebanese laws affect digital rights, directly and indirectly. Some laws, such as the 1962 Publications law, have been awkwardly extended to cover the Internet and new technologies. These laws are imperfect, subject to manipulation, and are full of gaps regarding the Internet and new technologies, such as smart phones. Additionally, they do not match the desires of activists who want complete guarantees on freedom of expression and other digital rights. Nevertheless, they do offer the barest of protections for the Lebanese citizen.
The key laws are:
- Law 140 of 1999 also known as the Surveillance or Eavesdropping Law. The first article of the law clearly guarantees the right of privacy across all various forms of electronic communication and data systems – computers, phones, smart phones, etc. As the other clauses note, when access to data is needed, it must be backed by a warrant from the judiciary sector and its position by authorities is limited to nothing more than two months. Law 140 came into the spotlight recently, especially when Lebanese security services and international groups like the Special Tribunal of Lebanon have demanded complete access to mobile phone data in violation of Law 140 and the Lebanese Constitution.
- Law 431 of 2002, also known as the Telecommunications Law. The law established the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority which supervises telecommunication activity and infrastructure, offers licenses, sets up rules for Internet Service Providers, and enforces laws, among other responsibilities.
- The Publications Law of 1962. The Publications Law, and the subsequent amendments and decrees that followed, governs forms of expression in Lebanon. The law has been extended in 2011 to include online activity such as blogs and social media and are enforced through the Press and Publications Court, as well as military and security departments. In 2010, Nizar Saghieh, Rana Saghieh, and Nayla Geagea conducted a detailed study on the censorship regimes implemented through the Publications Law and governmental and security agencies, titled “Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice,” and is really worth a read to grasp the labyrinthine censorship system in the country.
- Act no. 378 of 2001, also known as the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure, or simply the Penal Code. The code outlines what jurisdictions are applicable for each security and judicial entities, how the process of criminalization occurs, and the scope and style of criminal justice in Lebanon. A comprehensive knowledge of the Penal code is key, since many security agencies use this code alone to detain and prosecute people, at times even violating what they are authorized to do.
There are other laws to take into account. For example, since Lebanon does not have any laws directly related to data protection, confidentiality is enforced through the provision of the Bank Secrecy Laws of 1956, Code of Medical Ethics of 1994, and Consumers Protection Code of 2004.
In addition to the assortment of domestic laws relevant to digital rights, Lebanon is also subject to international laws and conventions that play a part in shaping digital activity and use.
Some of the key international legal documents that Lebanon ratified or can be used to pressure the Lebanese state in maintaining and enforcing digital rights are:
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Articles 18 and 19 that deal with freedom of expression and opinion.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which Articles 18 and 19 reasserts freedom of expression, thought, and opinion.
- The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Systems, which attempts “to clarify how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to Communications Surveillance technologies and techniques.”
- Statement at the Third Annual Arab Internet Governance conference, where 40 civil society groups, activists, technologists, and academics drafted and endorsed to demand safeguards for privacy, freedoms, and accessibility of the Internet.
Yazan al-Saadi is a senior staff writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow him on Twitter: @WhySadeye