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Please take the time and read my post on Global Voices Advocacy on how far would go to defend the rights of your political enemies. Selected excepts:

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What has this background to do with censorship though? When Rachad’s website was censored several blogs and websites carried the story including mine, with a petition to oppose all forms of censorship. Replies were extremely distrutful and vehement. Hchicha, a famous Algerian blogger who blogs in French, had a Youtube video that denounced censorship in all forms. He was attacked mercilessly and had multiple video replies. He says he was swamped with angry emails. I received emails to the tune that I am an islamist in disguise for starting the petition and had to alter the text to make it generic.  “How dare you defend the rights of Islamists?” was their argument. These emails and Video replies were coming from people who, themselves, oppose the current regime to the core.

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This brings me to the question: beyond the slogans and the principles, how far would you go in defending your political rival some fundamental human right, even if you know that the rival presents a substantial threat to your way of life? Upping the stakes once more,  what if even the values that you’re defending for them may be substantially jeopardised in case they win power?

After the censorship case that was discovered last week, I went back to the text of the law 09-04 combating cybercrime. The law was made official on the 5th August 2009. The text of the law makes for some worrying reading and grants unprecedented powers to the state, unprecedented even in other countries. Multi national search engines providers such as Microsoft and Google may fall foul of the law if they operate in Algeria (MS does, Google owns the Google.dz domain but does not have a subsidiary there yet). Most worryingly, the law literally permits the state to spy and hack onto websites that it deems in breach of its vague cybercrime definitions without prior consent from a competent judge in some cases. However, the text of the law does not, to my knowledge, grant the state the power to censor any website that it wishes without permission from a judge.

Search engine providers and ISPs fall under the definition given in article 1 D: “Any entity that processes or stores computer data [that is in breach of the law]”.  This applies to Microsoft, Google and other engines that store offending website caches and provide search engine results.

Articles 3, 4 and 7 give the state powers to eavesdrop and censor Internet content and detail cases when that is required, but the articles are explicit in that eavesdropping and censorship are only permissible with a renewable 6 month mandate by a competent judge. It is not clear how the Rachad website was censored.  The Rachad movement is not very famous in Algeria, and some of its leaders are quite unpopular being former FIS members. Its mission is the “peaceful overthrow of this illegitimate government” but I have a hard time believing that Algerians will flock to them en masse. It is a pity how a group of activists in exile with a website and a YouTube channel can easily be regarded as a “threat to national security”. The state is effectively giving publicity and recognition to the movement by this act.

I could not find any judicial decision that declared the Rachad movement a threat. There was a case in April 2009 where a man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for writing “threatening content” on Rachad’s Internet Forums (The case was dealt with before the introduction of this law).

Article 5 is worrying. It grants the state the power to remotely hack and spy onto computer systems if required by a judge, but other websites and systems can be hacked into “quickly” if they are “connected” to the offending website. In effect, this grants the state the power to hack into any website in Algeria. The text of the law is explicit in that a judge should seek cooperation by other countries for websites that are hosted outside Algeria, but any website should remain vigilant just in case. I hope the irony of a law that forbids cybercrime for citizens and effectively legitimises it for the state is not lost here.

Articles 10 and 11 require  “Internet providers” to store all communications and identifying information for a minimum of a year. The text of the law and the definitions given in article 2 give the impression that this applies to Internet café owners. Internet Cafés are the main venue for Internet users in Algeria, with some statistics putting the number of Internet cafés at 30000.

Article 13 and 14 introduce a new body for combating cybercrime, presumably this is the body that enforces censorship. The text of the law is not clear as to the nature of this body, what department it is under and what are its specific powers.

This whole law is in clear breach of several citizen rights as given in the constitution, including article 36 (explicit freedom of expression), article 39 (explicit right to privacy) and article 41 (freedom of assembly and speech). There is a state of emergency in force since 1992, so in practice the state can offend any of these rights willy-nilly with or without the new law.

Finally, please read and sign the Anti Censorship Petition if you are worried about these developments.

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.

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Commentary and views of an Algerian about the Middle East and Algeria, Democracy and Human Rights, Islam and Reform, as well as whatever pair of topics the author wishes to write about.

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