When the internet exploded beyond the early confines of US military and academic communications in the late-1990s, the US Congress believed that the internet should grow and flourish relatively unfettered by potential litigation and government regulation. This was reflected in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally provides that internet service providers are not liable for content posted by third parties on their websites.
However, the pendulum may be swinging in the other direction in the US, as there have been concerns about false information posted online by foreign interests that has been intended to influence elections. There also has been worry about the ability of terrorists and other bad actors to organize and develop plans of harm and destruction by utilizing the internet to further those negative pursuits.
Other countries share the foregoing worries. And there have been some consequent tightening controls on the internet. Of course, there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, there is a merit to seeking to prevent harm by terrorists. On the other hand, internet restrictions should not be implemented to thwart valid free speech, dissent and organization while seeking improperly to consolidate governmental societal control.
Looking at one country in particular, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has just implemented a new law that seeks greater control of the internet in Egypt, according to CNN. With the expressed goal of seeking to prevent terrorism, the Egyptian Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes law bars the “promotion of the ideas of terrorist organizations” and permits the Egyptian government to block websites determined by judges to constitute threats to national security. The law also bans the distribution of information concerning the movement of security forces. The law further enacts strong punishments for hacking of government computer systems.
At first blush, one can ascertain potential laudable purposes underlying the new Egyptian legislation. But, since assuming power in 2014, the Sisi government has been accused of barring important media voices and erasing valid digital content, as reported by CNN. Indeed, since May 2017, almost 500 websites have been blocked in Egypt, as reported by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo. Furthermore, CNN reports that the parliament in Egypt has passed legislation emboldening the government’s authority to target social media to ban dissent. As part of this, the government can conduct surveillance on social media sites.
The Egyptian model is worthy of analysis and scrutiny. Yes, perhaps the internet should not be completely free of restriction to protect the safety of innocent people. Nevertheless, the stated goal of seeking to prevent terrorism should not be used as cover to block valid speech, dissent and organization simply to help an existing government to maintain power. We will see how the new law in Egypt plays out. Hopefully, true terrorism will be thwarted by the new law and the law will not be used to silence voices that should be heard.