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During the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the internet was a space for mobilisation. Since then, it has become a space for oppression of activism and dissent as well, with the governments of numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA, Maghreb-Machrek in Arabic) adopting or amending legislation to crack down on online speech, deploying censorship and surveillance tools in an attempt to reclaim authority over knowledge production and curtail opposition. Despite the increasing sophistication of persecution, the efforts to defend human rights, both online and offline, have not ceased.

This is the context of APC’s work in the MENA region, through the project Building a culture of online human rights and digital security in the Maghreb-Machrek region, which aims to build digital security at a grassroots level and to improve legal, policy and regulatory frameworks that impact freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and access to the internet. The project involves a line of research to contribute to a better understanding of the threats and challenges in human rights and digital security, and how to bridge them.

Digital rights advocacy in the Arab world and the Universal Periodic Review

The region is so diverse that efforts across the Arab world in securing human rights in a digital environment vary hugely from country to country, researcher Wafa Ben Hassine concludes on a paper on Digital rights advocacy in the Arab world and the Universal Periodic Review, focusing on how local groups in the Maghreb and Machrek regions are engaged in internet-related rights advocacy, and how that reflects upon the inclusion of these issues in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

The UPR aims to provide a common ground in human rights, but whereas Arab non-profits have often participated in the process, digital rights have largely remained outside the remit. Digital protections and general human rights on the internet are are relatively novel, especially in the Arab world.

In the whole region, the report concludes, much of the civil society movement for digital rights is decentralised across several individual actors and a few organisations. Governments have maintained the tendency to arrest online activists on trumpedup charges, including Tunisia, where digital rights activists still face persistent police harassment, years after the toppling of dictator Ben Ali. At the same time, local nonprofits regularly hold events that encourage blogging, creating social media campaigns, and online activism.

A common thread amongst the countries studied is the reality of political systems that dictate how effective any launched campaigns can be. “The potential impact of advocacy is limited by political constraints that are rarely within the control of concerned citizens.” In some countries, the external environments in which campaigns are launched are not conducive to digital rights activism – especially in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and Libya. Arab countries with environments that are more conducive to digital rights activism – such as Jordan and, to some extent, Tunisia – face challenges in coordination of efforts and dedicating resources to educating CSOs on the UPR mechanism.

Digital safety in context: Perspectives on digital security training and human rights realities in the Arab world

The increasing human rights violations in the region, combined with international awareness of the insecurity of communication after the Snowden revelations, led many human rights organisations to refocus their efforts on the provision of digital security support. Over recent years, numerous trainings, workshops and consultations have been held across the Arab region, advising targeted groups on methods to protect themselves from digital threats posed by governments and other groups which could undermine their activities. But how effective have these efforts been on the ground?

This is the question addressed by researcher Reem Almasri on a paper on Digital safety in context: Perspectives on digital security training and human rights realities in the Arab world. The report explores the extent to which digital security programmes respond to the human rights and infrastructural realities of the countries where they are offered. The author interviewed digital security trainers and advocates from Morocco, Palestine and Egypt, whose perspectives provided the basis for four main recommendations to make digital security training more effective:

  • Contextual research should address the diverse human rights realities, not only at the country level, but also at the level of the targeted group.

In this regard, the interviewees highlighted the importance of understanding the legislative realities and surveillance practices of the country before offering advice on digital security. For example, in a country like Egypt, where any form of encryption is prohibited without a permit, a choice needs to be made between visible and not-so-visible encryption, “especially, when there is a risk of devices being inspected by the airport authorities,” as one of the trainers pointed out.

It is important to factor in the layout of the internet infrastructure of the country when assessing risks to digital security and recommending tools or practices.

This point was found to be particularly relevant in Occupied Palestine, one of the countries chosen as the focus for a case study as part of the research. Could Gazans ever be able to communicate securely using their phones or internet connections given the strong dependence of their network on the Israeli network?

  • Digital security trainings and manuals should be behaviours-focused more than tools-focused.

Security advice should take into consideration the behaviours of activists and their assumptions on certain platforms. One of the trainers provided the example of NGOs who use SMS as their main communication method. “We found out that their SMSs were moderated and filtered according to some words. In this situation, recommending a tool such as TextSecure will draw attention to this group.” Instead of introducing new tools, he suggested the use of manual agreed-upon encoded text while using the same medium to avoid persecution or more attention.

Another trainer mentioned the common practice of accessing the internet through public wireless services. “You can suggest all the secure applications in the world, but it won’t matter if you are using them through a public network,” he stressed.

  • It is necessary to subject digital security manuals to technical and security risk audits prior to publishing.

The trainers interviewed were especially critical of the “one-size-fits-all”, tools-based approach to digital security used by some guides and toolkits, as well as the perception of absolute safety these sometimes create. As one of the interviewees starkly stated: “Encryption will not immunise you from torture.”

Do you want to know more? Read the reports, visit our project page.