Keeping Jordan’s web open and free

17/1/2010

One of the best things about Jordan is its liberal and open attitude toward the internet.

In an Arab sea of restrictiveness (Lebanon is the exception) our open internet policy has enabled Jordanians to access all of the web (with the exception of one site: the US-based ArabTimes.com). This openness says something important about how the Jordanian state views the citizens: people with the right to access the information they want, not as half-humans who need to be “protected” from information.

Jordan’s internet openness has also spawned a promising web industry, whose fruits include companies like Maktoob.com, which became the first major Arab website to be acquired by global internet giant (Yahoo). It’s not just Maktoob.com. The industry now includes many players who target local, regional or even international users and markets.

Our King has been a champion of the IT industry and a voice for expanding press freedoms. Our Queen has over a million followers on Twitter and is a prominent innovator on YouTube. Several of our cabinet ministers and senior officials use Twitter (Minister of Energy Khaled Irani and Mayor Omar Maani come to mind).

Countless young (and older) Jordanian have an ongoing, sometime vibrant, national conversation online, across blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other networks.

That’s why we have to be concerned about the latest developments surrounding the applicability of the press and publication when it comes to the Kingdom’s news sites.

A new legal ruling by a court in Jordan, regarding a slander case brought against two Jordanian news web sites, has opened the debate about the status of electronic publishing in the country. The ruling said that electronic publishing is subject to the press and publications law.

So, what does that mean?

The worst case scenario would be that this ruling somehow leads to a totally misguided law that would require all forms of electronic publishing to be officially “registered”. This would be absurd, impractical and only give Jordan a bad name when it comes to freedom of expression. If such a law is passed (it would be a temporary law as currently we don’t have a parliament in session) it would mean that every news site (like Ammonnews and a dozen others) every blog (like 360east and THOUSANDS OTHERS) and even every Jordanian Twitter, Facebook or even phone user would need to go to the Ministry of Information and get registered as an ‘electronic newspaper’.

This would not make any sense.

The legal ruling could also be interpreted in a different way, namely as a way to protect people against defamation, whether online or offline. That would be OK. People need to have a legal means to protect their reputations in the media, wether this media is printed on paper or written on a computer screen. I am not a lawyer, but I am hearing people saying that slander and defamation are already covered with appropriate laws.

The grey area regarding the application of the press law emerges when talking about how the law places certain restrictions on the discussion of religious and security matters. These matters could have different interpretations and the law can lead to censorship and restrictions. But let’s not forget that a lot of these restriction actually exist socially and in people’s minds before they exist as laws. I personally believe that more and not less press freedoms should be given in future press laws.

As for the ‘Jordanian web’ I would advocate leaving it as a ‘free zone’ for expression. This serves freedom of speech and access to knowledge. It also serves the government as an important popular feedback channel. Placing restrictions on internet publishing would simply push more people into anonymous posting, or posting on international sites, which really serves no one in the country.

Slander is slander. It should be punishable by law. It is clear that there are excesses on the Jordanian web by opportunistic news websites or journalists/writers. But existing slander laws should be enough to deal with that (after reading the conversation on 7iber.com I would say that slander laws in Jordan are too intertwined with the press and publication law, so this point needs further clarification and thinking).

And anyway, in a world where anyone can start a blog or edit a Wikipedia entry, coming up with restrictive laws and trying to regulate what can or cannot be said on the web is almost impossible.

There have been cases in the US where web hosting companies removed hate-speech sites from their servers (I don’t know on which US legal grounds). But even the US cannot entirely wipe out Al Qaeda discussion forums which keep popping up here and there across the web.

In short: the benefits of an open internet policy far outweigh the threats or downsides. If anything, the Jordanian government should become a more ACTIVE participant in the online conversation in the country. In the mid 1990′s, NETS (today Batelco Jordan) pioneered the concept of ‘Ask the Government’ on Jordan’s first bulletin board. People could ask ministers a question and get answers. That was pretty progressive for the time. One of the guys behind this was none other than Marwan Juma, who’s IN the government today as our Minister of ICT.

I can only hope that our web stays as open and free as possible.

Update: Follow the rich conversation about this issue on 7iber.com.

10 Comments

  1. Yusuf Mansur says:

    Well said Ahmad, I hope Jordan will not go down the easy road of blanket regulation.

  2. Eyas says:

    Wow, great post. I agree with most of what is said, although when it comes to the “worst case scenario”, while I agree there’s some sort of possibility of it happening (as is there a possibility for a lot of other things), I think we can safely assume that the government will not make such interpretations of the court’s ruling and the law — that’d be too extreme, and I don’t think it’d be a smart choice for the government to do on ANY level.

  3. Humeid says:

    Thanks Yusuf. I wonder if the government HAS to do something because of the court decision or if they can simply adopt a “do nothing” policy.

    Something is adding to the confusion: the government is discussing the electronic transactions law. But that seems to be mainly about ecommerce and transaction, right?

    We’ll have to keep watching the developments.

  4. Humeid says:

    Thanks Eyas..

    I hope your optimistic view turn out to be true.

    I kind of share your view, but I am still somewhat concerned about misguided policy emerging out of this issue.

    Whoever can influence decision makers should play an enlightening role right now by explaining the negative effects of restrictive policy.

  5. Humeid says:

    This Jordan Times piece from December 2009 raises concerns:

    http://www.menafn.com/qn_news_story_s.asp?StoryId=1093287831

  6. A great summation, as always, Ahmad – thank you.

    Small point: “slander” is defamation which is SPOKEN. Defamation which is written or published is “libel”. The two are related but not the same.

    I’m watching and listening with interest to see how this develops.

  7. [...] Keeping Jordan’s web open and free – 360east 2010.01.17 Ahmad Humeid blogs on 360East.com: One of the best things about Jordan is its liberal and open attitude toward the internet. [...]

  8. [...] Well, that’s all I have to say I guess, but here’s a link to what my fellow Jordanian netizens are saying about it: A Sad Day for the Internet in Jordan: A Gag Order. Bam Bam’s World. A Tweet, Facebook, or a Blog Comment or Even an SMS Can Get You To Prison in Jordan. Arab Crunch. On Jordan’s Court Decision to Control Websites. Websessed. In Defense of Freedom of Speech and the Internet. Urdun Mubdi3. Websites and Publication Law. 7iber. One Step Forward Six Steps Back. MommaBean. On Jordan Censoring The Internet. The Black Iris. Voices in my head: I want my freedom back!. At a Place. On the New Publication Law: Big Brother is Watching You. Cinnamon Zone. Last Famous Words from Jordan. GYonis. Makan.قصة تعاونيّة مستوحاة من إخضاع المواقع الإلكترونية لقانون المطبوعات والنشر الاردني Infinite Reflections: Why Internet Censorship in Jordan is Bad for Business. Sami Shalabi. Keeping Jordan’s web open and free. 360 East. Parliament Asking for Passwords. Osma Al Romoh. [...]

  9. [...] – A Jordanian court decision on having all Internet sites adhere to the print & publications laws that governs the work of print media was surprising. Now we all know we never had total 100% freedom to say whatever we pleased either as a spoken or written word, but them saying that the law that applies to newspapers for instance will apply to blog posts, Facebook and all other internet websites is a bit too much. Till this day we don’t really know what this means, it might mean that there will be a group of people assigned to following each and every word written on the world wide web by Jordanian citizens but it might also mean (like many before me have suggested) that it’s only a mean of pushing people into self-censoring their own actions online, and i personally think it’s the later. I guess we will just have to wait for a detailed issue on what the ruling actually means. A few good reads on the subject are: >Ahmad Humeid’s Keeping Jordan’s web open and free >Naseem Tawarneh’s On Jordan Censoring The Internet >BamBam’s A Sad Day for The Internet in Jordan: a gag order [...]

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