On May 24, Egypt’s state-run news agency MENA announced that 21 websites were being blocked in the country because they were “supporting terrorism and extremism” and “spreading lies.”
This was just the beginning: According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), 101 websites are now blocked in Egypt, with more sites added to the block list each week.
This blog post is to raise questions — and where possible, based on the limited available information, answer them — around the blocking of websites as a form of online censorship by the Egyptian regime.
1- What types of websites are blocked in Egypt?
-Websites linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
2- Who is blocking them?
“No official statements have been issued by the telecommunications companies, NTRA or the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Consequently, no government data has been relied upon to confirm or deny the ban, with the exception of some published material in newspapers and news websites,” says (AFTE).
The only official information we’ve received so far came in a report from undeclared official sources, published by Al-Masry Al-Youm on May 25th. The report highlights the experiences of countries (Arab and foreign) who have previously blocked websites in order to justify the Egyptian government’s decision.
3- Why this is happening?
“Many of the sites that have been blocked had served as a refuge for Egypt’s remaining critical voices who no longer are allowed to appear on TV or in the print media, which have been firmly in the grip of the state since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power.” _ Amnesty international
4- How does censoring websites work?
“Through the collection and analysis of network measurement data we were able to determine that Egyptian ISPs are using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology to RESET connections to sites.” Read more in OONI’s #EgyptCensors: Evidence of recent censorship events in Egypt
The internet is a network made up of computers and the electronic messages and packets of IP (internet protocol) data that pass between them. The transmission of the information that constitutes this system is formalized in various systems called “protocols.”
IP is the most basic protocol used on the internet, and it is usually coupled with TCP (transmission control protocol), which is used for web browsing and email. Data on computers is broken down into a series of ones and zeros. Each zero or one represents the smallest data unit in the language of computer communication. Data packets sent via TCP contain a block of information called a TCP header, which includes details concerning the sending and receiving parties in the exchange. In normal communications, the TCP header’s bit is set to zero and has no effect on communication. If the value is changed to one, the computers party to the exchange are notified that they should stop using the TCP connection and should no longer send any more packets using the connection’s identifying numbers.
A third party can monitor TCP packets being sent from various points of a connection and then interject a forged packet containing a TCP reset command that will change the bit of the header from zero to one. The connection is interrupted with each attempt to complete the communication.
One of the most famous examples of a RST injection attack involves the firewall that China uses to censor and suspend access to a number of websites.
5- What legal action has been taken so far?
“The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression filed a lawsuit in the Administrative Court against the Egyptian government’s blocking of dozens of websites over the past weeks, most of which are of a news nature, without prior decision or clarification. AFTE based its case on the state’s contravention of Article 57 of the Constitution, which stated that it is not permissible to suspend or stop the means of communication or to deprive citizens of them arbitrarily. It also asserted that the block is in violation of a number of administrative and constitutional courts, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights And a number of United Nations resolutions and charters to which the Egyptian Government is committed.” Read in Arabic here.
Also, “Mada Masr filed a report with the prosecutor general, a complaint with the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority — NTRA, a lawsuit at the Administrative Court against the minister of communications and the head of the NTRA, requesting that they reveal the reasons behind the block and reverse it. We pleaded with the Journalists Syndicate to take up our case with various authorities.” #UnblockMada
6- What solutions or workarounds have been implemented?
– Alternative ways for publishing: Most of the blocked websites continue to publish on Facebook as it supports long text posts which cover publishing articles. In the beginning some of the blocked websites started publishing on Medium until it too was blocked. Some blocked sites have used alternative domains to bypass blocking. In a great spirit of collaboration, several websites that had not been blocked also started publishing articles by their blocked colleagues.
– Bypassing censorship: “Regardless of how content is filtered or blocked, you can almost always get the information you need by using a circumvention tool. Circumvention tools usually work by diverting your web or other traffic through another computer, so that it bypasses the machines conducting the censorship. An intermediary service through which you channel your communications in this process is called a proxy.” How to: Circumvent Online Censorship
7- What’s the difference between the blocking of websites in Palestine and Egypt?
“On June 12, The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Attorney General issued a Directive for the dozen Palestinian ISPs operating in the West Bank to block 11 websites affiliated with political rivals and critics of President Mahmoud Abbas,” according to Global Voices. In the Palestinian case, the official body behind the order has been disclosed. In Egypt, however, nobody knows who is behind the blocking of sites or what the criteria are on which such decisions were made. This greatly limits the affected parties’ ability to challenge or question the decision.
8- Why is censoring websites a violation of human rights?
“The act of blocking these 21 websites violates international standards in this area. Egypt has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and must follow the guidance of the Human Rights Committee, the only official body charged with interpreting the treaty. Its General Comment 34 emphasises that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. We firmly believe that none of these conditions have been fulfilled, particularly given the block’s extrajudicial character,” according to Index On Censorship.
9- Is this an episode of Black Mirror?
10- What’s next?
There’s a clear intent from the government to continue blocking more and more websites and to continue to censor the information that Egyptian internet users can access. The battle journalists in Egypt are facing is a part of the struggle for internet freedom. How do we keep the internet we love free, and away from the control of regimes?