After a heated debate and a long wait, the Moroccan government secretariat withdrew the “Information Law” draft bill (“Code Numerique”) from its official website, after it had published it in a bid to receive feedback before submitting it to parliament.
The document sparked a huge uproar on social networking sites, which impeded its legislative track for now, until it is reviewed.
Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi had opposed the Information Law. According to him, “the fundamental strength of the Internet lies in the freedom of expression and the ability to garner support for certain issues and positions. … Therefore, this strength cannot be controlled through external mechanisms.”
Khalfi said that the Arabic content of the Internet “is an essential source of information and news for the youth, not just a means of entertainment and conversation. It is a space where they can express their opinion and rally support for any cause or situation.”
“The development of online content is based on the level of freedom, the responsible initiative, research and broadcasting ethics and professional ethics, as far as news websites are concerned,” he stressed. He encouraged “adhering to the global debate on Internet content development and investing enormous potential in this regard.”
Tabeth al-Arabi, a researcher in electronic media, commented on the bill, saying, “After a quick look at the Information Law, which was withdrawn after it sparked media attention on social networking sites, it was confirmed to me that we are easily intrigued by anything new that comes up. Activists were intrigued by the appellation of the Information Law more than they were interested in the requirements contained in the bill. In fact, most, if not all, the requirements stipulated by the bill are not new. They are just a compilation of the requirements of a set of laws that were previously issued without being granted any attention. These texts include: the Press and Publication Law, especially the amendments introduced in 2002, the law on the electronic exchange of legal data, the law on consumer protection measures and the law on the protection of individuals with regard to their personal data.”
Arabi said, “The controversy caused by some of the requirements of the Information Law, which — according to some legal experts restrict freedoms — revealed a lack of coordination and legislative regulation on the one hand and a lack of political responsibility at the level of government proposals and draft laws on the other.”
Dictionary for security authorities
In contrast, blogger Khalid Shukri clarifies things in a more technical way: “Many believe that the government's approval of the draft code will open the door for control of the virtual world such as Facebook and Twitter, but this is unfortunately wrong.”
The information technology division of the security services tracks all incoming and outgoing data through the Moroccan communication lines, thanks to a system called "Dictionnaire." The US version of this dictionary includes 3,500 words. Once mentioned in a correspondence or publication, words are detected and subsequently followed up on or archived, similarly to the US Echelon system.
Strangely enough, words such as “president” or “playground” are directly referred for a maximum degree of follow-up and analysis. Security services consider the word “president” as a possibility of assassination, harassment or provocation. The word “playground” is a possibility of a bombing or a riot, etc.
Periodic reports about some active electronic accounts are also prepared, especially those belonging to webpage owners and managers of online groups, being influential actors, in a bid to keep track of their business and their reaction to events that take place in Morocco.
Shukri said: “Surveillance is not something new. There are multiple surveillance methods such as the legalization of aliases, which gives security agencies the power to legally intervene to confiscate any site and prosecute its owner.”
Most Moroccan Twitter users, including human rights activists, bloggers and journalists, called for the need to address the draft law “that is prepared to suppress opinions and restrict freedom of expression in the virtual world.” They posted on their Twitter accounts slogans about electronically defying the draft law.
These people felt that the ratification of the draft of the Information Law would limit the freedom of electronic journalism in Morocco, especially considering that the bill includes imprisonment and severe fines such as the imprisonment of owners of websites in many cases.
“Whoever unlawfully recorded or tapped phone calls or stored personal communication data, by using websites or any other digital means of communication without a judicial authorization, shall be punished by up to five years in prison and shall pay a fine amounting to 100,000 dirhams [$12,157].”
The Information Law imposes imprisonment of whoever publishes photos of minors and uses the pictures in an unethical way. The perpetrator is considered to be a “criminal involved in inducting a minor into performing an activity that may put him at risk.”
The law, however, does not only touch on ethical matters but mentions security issues as well. The draft imposes punishments against “whoever publishes data that explains how to make destructive devices, by using explosive or nuclear materials.”
The law grants the members of the judicial police “the right to participate in electronic correspondence by using fake names with people who are suspected of electronic crimes.”
The Information Law comprises 114 chapters. The first paragraph of Chapter 73 was the most controversial, given the vague expressions used. The implementation or interpretation of these expressions by the judiciary system or security agencies can lead to a situation where the freedom of expression of those holding different political and intellectual ideas is limited. The paragraph stipulates the following: “Any offensive content, posted implicitly or explicitly, be it through photos or words, violent or unethical scenes that may disrupt the public order; elements that can encourage abuse, neglect and lack of safety or contradict Islam, public political convictions or the private life of individuals; or elements taking advantage of the lack of experience and naivety of minors, is prohibited.”
According to human rights activists, the dangerous aspect of this paragraph resides in its loose expressions that are subject to interpretations when it comes to ethics, Islam and political convictions.
Journalist Moubarak Limrabat said, “It is true that the world knows many risks (terrorism, crime, prostitution, etc.) but the Moroccan authorities are taking these risks as a pretext to tighten their grip on the World Wide Web and limit the 'evils' that may result from it. Its first aim is not to quell this new opposition and silence its voice, but rather to isolate it and render its voice a mere unheard whisper. It also aims to limit its expansion within society, so that its words would have no impact, the same way the authorities succeeded in isolating previous opposition movements and dwarfing the impact of their words.”
“In any way, and under whichever form the Information Law returns, it will remain brittle, easy to be breached and to find a way around it, because it will always be unable to put the Internet under control. The Internet is similar to the land of prominent Moroccan poet Ahmad Barakat: it belongs to no one. It is a land for those who have no other place to express themselves freely and honestly,” he noted.
Morocco ranked second in the Arab world in terms of electronic security. This ranking was mentioned in a report about the international index of electronic security, which prompted many questions about the ability of Morocco to face electronic threats and hacking attempts.
Morocco’s index was 0.558, while Oman’s, ranking first, was 0.765. Egypt ranked third with an index of 0.5.
On the other hand, the report ranked Morocco first among African states in terms of the number of citizens benefiting from electronic services. At the same time, the report placed Morocco among countries dealing with a weakness on the level of institutions supervising the issue of electronic security in the country.
The recent ranking of Morocco in terms of electronic security does not go in line with the ranking of the International Foundation for the Protection of Data, which put Morocco third in terms of electronic security. The number of hacking attempts increased by 42% last year, which puts Morocco in the “danger zone” in terms of website hacking.
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