Egypt moves to block "obscene" websites

A Cairo court ruling to block pornographic sites on the Internet has caused a stir among Egyptian rights groups and bloggers this week. Meanwhile, the country’s National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA), who the court ruled as responsible for implementing the censorship along with Egypt’s Telecommunications Ministry, said that the order would be "extremely difficult" to carry out.
A Cairo court has ordered the government to block "venomous and vile" sites. © BBC

BEIRUT, May 14, 2009 (MENASSAT) - In a ruling on Wednesday, Cairo’s Administrative Judicial court ordered the Egyptian authorities to block what it referred to as the "venomous and vile" websites in response to a case suit filed by lawyer Nezar Ghorab.

The court called for freedom of expression to be exercised on a level of respect to moral, religious, and national principles.

“Letting these websites operate ruins moral values. Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism,” AFP quoted the court as saying.

Ghorab said he had brought on the case in a bid to protect Egyptian social values from the “electronic dens of vice" and supported his argument by citing the recent case of a couple imprisoned for establishing an online swingers club as an example of “the dangers posed by such offensive websites.”

The couple, a government employee and his wife, are to have solicited other married couples for “swinger” parties over an Internet site advertising wife swapping they set up together.

“A victory over vice and corruption”

Hailing Wednesday’s verdict as a “victory over vice and corruption”, Ghorab called on the Egyptian authorities to make an immediate move on the court order.

“Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately," the BBC quoted Ghorab as saying.

But logistical complications may prove the court order a mission impossible, if one is to believe the NTRA.

Speaking on satellite channel Dream TV this week, NTRA executive chairman Amr Badawy explained that there are grave concerns over the technical difficulties involved in imposing mass site blockages.

“Blocking is an extremely complicated and difficult operation and cannot be controlled; in addition it impedes the process of reaching other websites,” he was quoted as saying by Daily News Egypt.

As an alternative solution for those looking to block access to obscene sites on their computers, Badawy recommended subscription to a special service that filters porn websites.

In comparison  to other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Syria, that practice a high level of Internet censorship, Egypt has thus far not imposed much restriction on Internet access.

With an estimated 12 million Internet users, Egypt has the largest amount of Internet users of any Arab country.

The court decision has been met with strong criticism from free speech advocates and bloggers who argue that the ruling highlights a move to restrict freedom of expression in the country.

Some worry that the crusade against porn sites will end up becoming a tool to crackdown on dissident thought and Egypt’s opposition activists.

Let the citizens decide

Egyptian blogger and leftist activist Hossam El-Hamalawy, moderator of referred to Wednesday’s development as “catastrophic.”

“I’m totally against this ruling, and any form of censorship online or offline. Censoring ‘porn’ is a good excuse for the government to start censoring websites of political content or use.  (The photo-sharing site) Flickr will be censored since some users show ‘nude’ pictures. (The video-sharing portal) YouTube will be banned because some videos posted include ‘sexually obscene’ footage. This is catastrophic,” El-Hamalawy told MENASSAT.

Independent Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Khaled echoed El-Hamalawy’s claim, saying that the verdict would be used as “an excuse to block the voices of the opposition, religious groups, activists, etc. as there will be misuse of power,” the Daily News Egypt reported.

“The idea of banning or blocking is very dangerous,” he added.

Cairo-based rights groups The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said the court decision could come to pose a threat to freedom of expression in Egypt due to the verdict’s vague terminology and the granting of far-reaching powers to the Ministry of Communication.

The court decision “is characterized by its general terms, since it did not specify the particular meaning of pornographic websites. Even worse, the danger of granting the Ministry of Communications with the authority to block sites will result in the expansion of the policy of blocking and control under the context that these web sites are ‘pornographic or obscene’, which severely threatens the freedom to use the Internet in Egypt,” said ANHRI in a press statement.

Speaking on Dream TV, renowned Egyptian novelist Alaa El-Aswani denounced state intervention on Internet traffic, saying it should be up to each citizen to decide what websites they want to access.

“The state shouldn’t act as a guardian on the people. Internet service providers offer a bundle for families who want to block these websites. This, in my opinion, is the best possible solution whereby each citizen will have the option of blocking those websites and at the same time there wouldn’t be any misuse of power,” he said.