Ahmed Shaheed, University of Essex, & Benjamin Greenacre, City University of New York
As the papers in this collection document, the emancipatory promise of technology is overshadowed by a rising tide of States who co-opt technological advances to enable online and offline repressive measures, a phenomenon otherwise referred to as the rise of ‘digital authoritarianism’. This trend has been thrown into high relief in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by geopolitical shifts that have given greater influence to states that are importing and exporting repressive technologies, applications, and governance models. Digital authoritarianism does not involve just the co-option of technology, but also the re-shaping and subversion of international norms to reduce the transactional costs of authoritarian control and suppress the legitimacy of mobilization for greater online and offline freedoms. This paper examines the laws and practices of states, including through Covid-linked state responses, in the MENA region that enable digital authoritarianism and their disjuncture with the human rights obligations of these states. It then shows that despite this regression, the ‘cat-and-mouse’ contest between digital authoritarianism and digital activism is a fluid one, highlighting opportunities to push back against this authoritarianism.
The right to privacy and freedoms of expression, association and assembly are guaranteed by articles 17, 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an instrument ratified by all states of the MENA region bar Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These rights are also widely considered part of customary international law under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and therefore binding on all States. These rights are further reiterated by Article 21, 24 and 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Nonetheless, the past decade has been marked by a proliferation of legislation across the MENA region that restricts and even criminalises legitimate expression, association and assembly and privacy in digital spaces.
So-called ‘Cybercrime’ laws drafted in the Gulf States, Egypt, Iran and Jordan, fall far short of international standards. Where a State wishes to impose a restriction on freedom of expression, it must, inter alia, draft a clear, precise, and unambiguous provision (the principle of legality) that is both necessary and proportionate. The provision must equally be lawful; for example, restrictions can never be used to muzzle “advocacy of democratic tenets and human rights.” However, many cybercrime laws characterise legitimate expression as potentially criminal activity. In the UAE, for example, Decree No. 5/2012 is used as a legal basis for the prosecution of individuals who use technology to criticise the government, argue for political reform, or organise unlicensed demonstrations. Jordan’s cybercrime bill punishes digital libel and a vague conception of ‘hate speech’ with up to three years in prison and punitive fines. Many of these laws do not satisfy, in letter or effect, the basic requirements of restrictions on freedom of expression under international law.
Freedom of expression also includes the right to receive information of all kinds, such as political discourse, commentary on public affairs and human rights, and journalism. The right to receive information is, in particular, a bellwether for the health of democratic norms and the enjoyment of human rights, online and offline, within a country. However, internet censorship is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception in the Middle East and North Africa. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Saudi Arabia and Iran as two of the most censored countries globally, blocking vast swathes of the internet deemed objectionable under their respective cybercrime legislation, especially regional human rights monitoring organisations. Similarly, Egyptian authorities have blocked access to 513 websites, including news media and prominent human rights organisations under the country’s 2018 Cybercrime laws.
Some MENA States use existing criminal laws, sometimes in combination with cybercrime laws, to limit expression online. These often result in severe or increased penalties, which incentivise people to self-censor on specific topics. Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia have all prosecuted human rights defenders for expression online under anti-blasphemy laws. These provisions can result in heavy prison sentences and, in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the death penalty. Regularly used to stifle political and cultural dialogue online and offline, blasphemy laws protect religious institutions and symbols from insult or offence at the expense of the freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression of actual rights-holders. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan,and Kuwait also use overly broad defamation laws to prosecute individuals that criticise the government or spotlight corruption on online platforms, threatening them with prison sentences and punitive fines. International law is clear that, while protecting the rights and reputations of others is a valid reason to restrict freedom of expression, restrictions cannot legally impede political debate or shield political figures or institutions from criticism.
At the extreme, States are using military, anti-terrorism, and national security laws to undermine freedom of expression and association online. As with anti-blasphemy laws, these laws often carry the most severe of penalties and are, in some jurisdictions, routinely meted out by military tribunals, which the UN Human Rights Committee has noted may violate the right to a fair trial. In particular, Israel regulates digital expression and association in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) through the incitement provisions of Israeli military law. During 2015-2018 Israel reportedly prosecuted over 500 Palestinians under these provisions, including children and journalists sharing news on Facebook. Anti-terrorism provisions are similarly levied against human rights defenders in areas under civil jurisdiction of Israel, as well as in Kuwait and Jordan. In many cases, the conviction of one individual as a terrorist may provide grounds for the prosecution by association of all individuals in their online networks.
Invasive Government Laws
These new digital regulatory environments also actively facilitate infringements on the right to privacy. The majority of countries in the region, including Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, have some legal provisions for data protection that should further the enjoyment of the right to privacy. However, the vast majority of these laws provide insufficient protections against unauthorised processing of subjects’ sensitive data and contain numerous and significant exemptions allowing State security services to carry out invasive domestic surveillance. Governments’ failure to properly regulate digital data is problematic. While legitimate security exigencies upon the State call for limited infringement of rights, weak digital data regulation is directly linked to an increase in arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the right to privacy. Problematic in of themselves, infringements of the right to privacy also further stymy freedom of expression, notably as they encourage regimes of self-censorship.
Unsurprisingly, many governmental practices and activities enabled by the above legislative frameworks also violate the international human rights obligations, norms and standards. For the purposes of this essay, two problem categories are identified: digital surveillance practices and digital interference practices.
Digital surveillance is now widespread throughout the MENA region. As States seek to build their surveillance capabilities, they have purchased complex surveillance equipment, spyware packages (software which covertly gathers data from your computing devices and transmits them to a third party without your consent) and 0-day exploits (vulnerabilities in software or hardware that are not publicly known) from private technology companies. At first, this was predominately from international companies such as Nokia Siemens, Palantir, Fin Fisher, BAE Systems and Hacking Team, however notable local enterprises have since emerged, such as the Israeli ‘NSO Group’ and Emirati ‘DarkMatter’. Such firms have, alongside criminal mercenary hacker groups, significantly augmented the capacity of governments including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, UAE, Sudan and others to mount complex, targeted or large-scale digital surveillance operations over the past decade, often with little regard as to the human rights impact.
Even if a government plans to use such services in accordance with international law, they may still facilitate violations of a variety of rights by supporting such a model of surveillance. Complex state-funded spyware, once discovered, can be reverse engineered and repurposed for malicious use. The more States fund the proliferation of spyware, the more this will occur. Further, many forms of monitoring rely on software vulnerabilities that anyone can exploit for as long as they remain unpatched. States relying on such vulnerabilities are therefore enabling other unknown actors to access the same data.
Where a State does not meet its obligations under international law concerning digital surveillance practices, surveillance can escalate directly to grave violations of human rights, including arbitrary detention, torture, and even extrajudicial killing of individuals a government considers hostile. There is no clearer example of this than the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was tortured and dismembered by the Saudi Arabian government after the contents of his encrypted chats with other dissidents were compromised by NSO Group’s ‘Pegasus’ spyware.
Digital interference, by contrast, includes practical measures taken by governments to block, limit, or distort access to information within their jurisdiction. Examples regularly seen in the MENA region include internet shutdowns and throttling (the reduction of internet speed to render services or content effectively unusable) and the manipulation of online narratives through bot networks and troll farms. In 2020 the MENA region had the second largest number of internet shutdowns, with Yemen and Jordan having among the highest number of all counties globally. Interference with access to the internet most obviously undermines the freedom to impart and receive information. However, given the internet’s prominence in all aspects of our life, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, internet shutdowns imperil the enjoyment of numerous rights, including by interfering with the ability of persons to manifest their religion or belief in a community, to work or receive an education, to participate in politics and to receive healthcare information. Moreover, internet shutdowns can carry an implicit threat to the right to life, often preceding atrocities. In particular, Iran has shut down internet services during protests immediately before disproportionate lethal responses by security forces.As a restriction on speech, internet blackouts are inherently disproportionate due to their blanket effect and, therefore, an unlawful restriction on digital expression.
Social media bots and troll farms, by comparison, are means for altering the normative and discursive environment in a subtler fashion. They are often a form of organised disinformation, where States “systematically and simultaneously suppress other sources while promoting their own false narratives”. Although these activities may not restrict online activity in of themselves, they are used to dispirit and demoralise activists, either through targeted harassment or through an overwhelming hijacking of the online narrative, against which authentic activity struggles to compete. In Saudi Arabia, an infamous troll farm allegedly run by former Saudi advisor Saud Al-Qahtani, harassed critics, including Jamal Khashoggi, and ensured that the Saudi-authority favoured narrative was the only one that would ‘trend’ on social media platforms. Similar efforts have been a staple of Iran’s approach to manipulating online discursive environments.Practices of online disinformation can explicitly violate freedom of opinion and expression and may interfere with freedom of thought, where they undermine our mental autonomy.
In some instances, partnerships with private companies have allowed MENA State actors to interfere with the online efforts of individuals to exchange information, views and opinions simply by requesting that companies remove content from their influential social media platforms. At the behest of the governments of Tunisia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, digital media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have censored and disabled the accounts of activists, journalists, and citizens critical of their governments.An agreement between the Government of Israel and Facebook has resulted in 95% of requests submitted by the government for content removal being upheld, including for alleged incitement. Given the contention surrounding the use of Israel’s incitement laws, rights monitors are concerned that moderation disproportionately and discriminatorily targets Palestinians. Accusations of discriminatory censoring of Palestinians by Facebook has escalated rapidly in May 2021, as Palestinians began documenting their evictions from Sheikh Jarrah, clashes with Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas.Governments imposing discursive norms on social media platforms via their moderation practices are particularly concerning, as, unlike coordinated inauthentic behaviour, it is much harder to discern and object to an absence of information.
COVID-19 Related Intrusions
The global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the adverse human rights impacts of law and policy affecting digital spaces. Governments’ technology responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – usually involving some variant of a ‘track and trace’ app – have profoundly impacted the right to privacy. In this regard, Amnesty International declared Bahrain and Kuwait’s COVID tracking apps ‘among the most dangerous in the world,’ categorising them as “highly invasive surveillance tools,” which “go far beyond what is justified in efforts to tackle COVID-19.” Some apps, such as Qatar’s ETHERAZ, have been made mandatory for all residents and visitors and are required for entering many different shared spaces, including mosques, entertainment, social venues, public transport, parks, schools and childcare establishments. The app’s security protocols and data retention policy have been a cause for concern, both due to the possibility for hackers to access users’ sensitive personal information and for the government’s ability to use the data for various purposes beyond preventing the transmission of COVID. Like Qatar, most governments in the region have not developed COVID tracing apps with a ‘clear and limited’ purpose, with ‘data protection by design and default.’ Where access to public places is predicated upon the user’s consent to be monitored by such apps, governments are forcing rights holders to choose between their right to privacy and freedom of movement, freedom of religion or belief, the right to education and or the right to work. Where there are no such limitations, governments are still at best putting the sensitive data of their citizens at risk and at worst expanding the surveillance state under the guise of medical imperative.
The COVID pandemic has further been used to justify restrictions on free speech under the guise of combating medical misinformation. In Algeria, for example, authorities have arrested journalists, bloggers and others who contradict or criticise the government’s COVID narrative online. Similarly, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain, Iran and Tunisia have used COVID-19 emergency measures or other laws to arrest, detain, prosecute or fine persons expressing opposition to the government’s pandemic response – or even criticising the government on unrelated issues. Some Gulf governments have exceptionally lifted restrictions on access to voice over IP and encrypted chat apps during the pandemic. These gestures remain insufficient, however, as long as lawful access remains transient and popular apps such as WhatsApp and Skype remain inaccessible. The on-going ban of WhatsApp in these countries may in fact harm efforts to combat medical misinformation as many international organisations including the WHO distribute COVID information via WhatsApp chat bots.
Empowering People: Creative Counter Responses
Despite rampant surveillance and censorship over the past decade, social media and digital technology continue to amplify the voices of human rights activists and promote accountability of both State actors and private enterprise. In 2019, Rahaf Mohammad Mutlaq Al-Qunun avoided being deported to Saudi Arabia, where she feared execution for apostasy, primarily due to her documenting on Twitter the attempts of Thai authorities to force her repatriation. On May 12, 2021, due to the documentation and outcry of rights monitors, Facebook was forced to acknowledge its failure to appropriately moderate discussions on its platform surrounding Israeli police operations at the al-Aqsa mosque.
Rather than cowing civil society, ‘digital authoritarianism’ has instead become a double-edged sword for governments, simultaneously restricting digital activism and encouraging activists to innovate new approaches to counteract repression. Virtual private networks (VPNs), encrypted communication and peer-to-peer networking and file-sharing have enabled human rights activists to bypass State censor regimes. Meanwhile, the deluge of primary sources across social media, combined with the dissemination of information and expertise across global networks of activists, has given birth to entirely new methodologies of accountability. One of the most popular is ‘Open-Source Intelligence’ or OSINT.
OSINT is intelligence that is generated, cross-referenced, and verified using publicly available (generally digital) information. The organization ‘Bellingcat,’ a prominent pioneer of OSINT methods, has used this methodology to uncover the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its civilian population (later confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), the killing of Iraqi protestors by security forces, and Saudi Arabia’s long-standing attempts to conduct malicious cyber operations. The methodology’s success has resulted in many human rights NGOs and even UN Fact-Finding Missions adopting it to document human rights violations and rebut State disinformation campaigns.
Another response has been the growing application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms to data gathered through digital networks. The ‘Ceasefire’ platform, the result of a collaboration between Ceasefire, Minority Rights Group, and the University of Essex, combines crowd-sourced reporting of violations with AI & ML processing of social media feeds to pinpoint human rights violations as they occur. The platform has quickly become an important tool not only for its original creators, but for a wide variety of civil society actors to monitor and respond to human rights violations. Piloted in Iraq in 2017, the use of the platform was subsequently extended to the wider Middle East and North Africa region, proving to be a vital source information on human rights violations.
If, in the Middle East & North Africa, the “route to democratisation is a digital one,” then it should also be concluded that, increasingly, so too is the route to authoritarianism. Many States in the region have studied the lessons of Iran’s Green Movement and the wider ‘Arab Spring.’ In response, Governments have not only enacted broad programmes of legislation that restrict and often criminalise many legitimate forms of expression and association online, but developed counter-practices of unprecedented, invasive surveillance, censorship and denial of service.
Further, governments increasingly seek to co-opt social media platforms and tools to advance behind-the-scenes strategies aimed at surreptitiously moderating content, shrinking civil society space, and undermining the promise of technology for accountability. In this context, the global COVID-19 pandemic has served as an excuse for governments, both in the region and globally, to exercise and consolidate repressive power, online and offline.
Nevertheless, despite evident power imbalances, human rights activists have adapted. The practice of adopting and sharing operational security protocols, as well as the use of encryption technology and censor circumvention methods, have provided civil society with the means to maintain digital communication networks. Through these networks, activists coordinate, rapidly exchange information and advocate to a global audience –– activities that would otherwise be compromised by digital authoritarianism. These networks have additionally enabled civil society to develop entirely new, effective tools to spotlight violations of human rights and combat governments’ disinformation campaigns, including by carrying out investigations of a calibre once the exclusive reserve of State intelligence agencies.
Moreover, global efforts to assert the relevance of human rights law in digital spaces, develop more stringent standards for the protection of privacy and data online, resist and circumvent ‘sovereign internets,’ and defend intermediary immunity can impede the onslaught of digital authoritarianism. The investment made by repressive states, such as China (see Xiao Qiang’s essay in this collection), to control multilateral institutions underscore the important role hegemonic norms play in this contestation, as do recent efforts made by technology companies to demonstrate greater compliance with human rights norms. However, the demand that human rights law be applied to the design, development, use and evaluation of emerging technologies, while critically important, does not guarantee that human rights will be protected in the digital age. Leadership by democratic states through investing in technological and institutional infrastructure, disseminating best practice, developing inclusive governance models, and boosting the capacity of human rights defenders, will be crucial to tilt the balance in favour of freedom. Digital authoritarianism in the MENA region is not a localized phenomenon or challenge; it is representative of wider global trends and requires a multi-layer, global response.
 Ahmed Shaheed is Deputy Director of the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project at the University of Essex and Benjamin Greenacre is Senior Researcher at Freedom of Religion or Belief Project at the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center at City University of New York.
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 “Data protection by design and default’, which is essential to the safeguarding of the right to privacy, means privacy protection must be integrated from the outset when designing a system and that privacy respecting settings must be enabled by default. See United Nations, Human Rights Council, The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Doc. A/HRC/39/29 (3 August 2018): para. 31, accessed 24 July 2021, https://undocs.org/A/HRC/39/29.
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 Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse,” accessed 22 July 2021, https://features.hrw.org/features/features/covid/index.html.
 Human Rights Watch, “COVID-19: Unblock Voice Over IP Platforms in Gulf,” accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/07/covid-19-unblock-voice-over-ip-platforms-gulf.
 World Health Organization, “WHO Health Alert Brings COVID-19 Facts to Billions via WhatsApp,” accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-health-alert-brings-covid-19-facts-to-billions-via-whatsapp.
 Anais Moine, “Tout Juste Reconnue Réfugiée, Rahaf Mohammed Témoigne de Son Bonheur,” Aufeminin, accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.aufeminin.com/news-societe/declaree-refugiee-rahaf-mohammed-al-qunun-confie-son-bonheur-s2993886.html.
 Jon Porter, “Instagram Blames ‘Enforcement Error’ for Removal of Posts about Al-Aqsa Mosque,” The Verge, accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/5/13/22433861/instagram-al-aqsa-mosque-posts-takedown-error-facebook-moderation.
 Eliot Higgins, “The Open Source Hunt for Syria’s Favourite Sarin Bomb,” Bellingcat, accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/04/21/the-open-source-hunt-for-syrias-favourite-sarin-bomb/.
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 Nick Waters, “Iraqi Protesters are Being Killed By “Less Lethal” Tear-Gas Rounds,” accessed 22 July 2021,
 Bellingcat, “Lord Of the Flies: An Open-Source Investigation into Saud Al-Qahtani,” accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/06/26/lord-of-the-flies-an-open-source-investigation-into-saud-al-qahtani/.
 See for example, Sam Dubberley, “The Digital Verification Corps: Amnesty International’s Volunteers for the Age of Social Media,” Amnesty International, accessed 22 July 2021, https://citizenevidence.org/2019/12/06/the-digital-verification-corps-amnesty-internationals-volunteers-for-the-age-of-social-media/. See also Joshua Lyons, “Documenting Violations of International Humanitarian Law from Space: A Critical Review of Geospatial Analysis of Satellite Imagery During Armed Conflicts in Gaza (2009), Georgia (2008), and Sri Lanka (2009),” International Review of the Red Cross 94, no 886 (Summer 2012) 741, accessed 24 July 2021, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/review/2012/irrc-886-lyons.pdf.
 United Nations, Human Rights Council, Situation of Human Rights in Yemen, including Violations and Abuses since September 2014: Report of the Detailed Findings of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, UN Doc. A/HRC/42/CRP.1 (3 September 2019), para. 34, accessed 24 July 2021, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/A_HRC_42_CRP_1.pdf.
 See Ayman Alhelbawy, Mark Lattimer, Udo Kruschwitz, Chris Fox and Massimo Poesio, “An NLP-Powered Human Rights Monitoring Platform,” Expert Systems with Applications 153 no. 113365 (September 2020), accessed 24 July 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eswa.2020.113365.
 Ibid, p. 12.
 Philip N. Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information, Technology and Political Islam, New York: Oxford University Press (2010), p. 201, accessed 24 July 2021, DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199736416.001.0001 .
 United Nations, Human Rights Council, The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age: Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 26 September 2019, UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/42/15 (7 October 2019), accessed 24 July 2021, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3837297?ln=en.