For some time the Algerian authorities have been thinking about putting an Internet filtering service in place. Algeria is one of the few middle eastern countries that escaped the wrath of such a system so far.
The government cooked together a law throughout the last year to combat cybercrime, terrorism websites and internet pornography. cybercrime has been an evident problem of late. The lack of successful role models and a market where IT specialists could fuel their energy encouraged the youth to view hacking as a desirable, heroic, patriotic or even religious activity. The recent Algeria Egypt football match saw some literally fierce website hacking battles, facilitated by the laughable security in government IT systems in both countries. On the other hand, indecency laws have been used rigorously to put people who distribute obscene pictures to trial. Some cases were featured at large as the subjects (mostly women) were threatened and sentences ended up being harsh, enrolling charges of extortion.
So the law resonates very well with a local population that is increasingly conservative and hostile to a pornographic industry seen as a product of broken Western morals, while at the same time very frustrated at the sporadic yet continuous terrorist attacks. The government was largely successful in introducing the laws without much resistance or proper discussion from the local press, non governmental organisations or Internet café owners (Internet cafés are main venues for connectivity).
Now the government is turning towards implementing a publicly funded national filtering system to filter and monitor web usage. I could stomach that a large portion of the population might find such a system desirable. I could also accept that it gets enabled it by default for new customers. What I just can’t pass up are the plans to make circumvention of such filters illegal and punishable. Such a system would be too easy to abuse to crack down on dissident voices and cause the abortion of the infantile Algerian blogosphere.
Given the Algerian authorities’ track record against the printed press, I am not at all delighted with this move. The authorities have repeatedly used its monopoly of the printing and advertising businesses in the country to reign in on independent newspapers. The same treatment will surely be unveiled on undesirable websites with the click of a button.
Aggravating the threat is the judicial system’s extreme technophobia, as in literal hostility towards technology. The judges often give the impression that they do not understand technology and lay down sentences on the whim of suspicion, sometimes in an effort to inflate the number of “caught” terrorists and terrorist “sympathisers” or to exaggerate the severity of web terrorist activity inside the country. This blogger knows several people who have been locked up because their computer equipment contained pictures of terrorist attacks that were saved from local press websites, and were publicly available in printed form in the hundreds of thousands.
Circumventing the filtering system in and of itself should not be banned and there should be no legal repercussions whatsoever for doing so. It is up to the prosecutor to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the crime as dictated by the law has been comitted with no remorse to the filtering system. In this age of the 21st century and its technologies, it is trivial for a moderately savvy user to circumvent almost any filtering mechanism.
The country should instead concentrate on improving internet facilities for its citizens and should implement policies that encourage the use of the Web to diffuse information and empower civil discourse. The fact that the country has no filtering system yet is, sadly, not a reflection of liberal tendencies or love for freedom of speech. It is a reflection of the fact of that Internet penetration is very low even by the region’s standards. A just released market research report forecasts it to grow to 3.2% by 2013 – a deplorable figure. The cause is not lack of resources or of IT brainpower, it is pure business mismanagement. The network is managed by the state owned bureaucratic Algérie Télécom, a monolithic archaic entity that, despite having more than 3 million lines, was valued by potential investors at the paltry sum of $200 million for the whole internet/fixed telephony business last year. An embarrassingly low figure for a usually investor safe lone communication market player. In contrast, the mobile market is estimated to be worth a figure in the double digits of billions of dollars. On the incompetence of Internet providers, I recount my experience: I lodged an application for a DSL line and paid 6 months of subscription upfront only to be figuratively tortured with endless promises and delays, not to speak of regular downtime and aweful peak time speeds once service started. Issam Hamoud, an Algerian blogger in the capital no less recalls a similar experience.
My only condolence were such a system implemented and abused is the possibility that it will backfire, knowing the netizens’ tendency to quickly reassemble and follow what they’ve been banned with vengeance. The low penetration numbers can suggest more malice than failure, as the authorities may not want to get bothered with a problem of internet political activity in the first place.