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Privacy and censorship

The balance of privacy to allow freedom of expression while limiting the dissemination of dangerous information is problematic.

There is a fine line between public and private when it comes to the virtual playground of social media.

In the paradoxical world we live in, users will often share personal thoughts on pervasive social networking sites without much thought about the risks of leaving a digital footprint.

In the most extreme cases, posting a careless comment or tweet, can sometimes lead to being publicly mocked, humiliated or even fired.

For instance, users shouldn’t brag about stealing medical supplies by posting pictures with a bedpan on their head or boast about stealing cars by posting pictures eating a “cash sandwich” on social media sites.

While this kind of digital intrusion into people’s privacy can be argued as justified in solving crimes, at what point does it go too far?

The American mobile phone app, Snapchat, was originally marked as a method of ‘view once’ picture messaging on the basis that ‘snaps’ vanished once viewed.

But a complaint was filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre over Snapchat’s supposedly “deceptive business practices” with a report stating “Snapchat photos and videos remain available to others even after users are informed that the photos and videos have been deleted”.

This could well be considered an intrusion of people’s privacy, yet surprisingly, the controversial app has developed into an $860 million company boasting 200 million images each day.

But social media in the MENA region paints a very different picture.

While there has been a surge in social media since the Arab Spring, privacy is top of the list when considering whether to join a social networking site. This is more so the case of women in the Arab world, who are less than impressed with the levels of privacy on big social media platforms such as Facebook.

In the latest Arab Social Media Report, it revealed the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world was more than 54 million – an increase by one million since June last year. But the percentage of female users on Facebook in the Arab region was just 33 per cent, which is significantly lower than the 50 per cent global average.

“One possible explanation for this is the heightened regulation and in some cases censorship on social media usage since 2013,” the report states.

“Other factors that may have contributed to this drop include the many new social media platforms emerging in the region filling local needs for relatively large segments of society.”

Instead more users in the region appear to migrate towards Arabic social media platforms, specifically designed to remain private for its users.

But in this digital age, do users really have any privacy on any social networking site at a time when billions of people are revealing their behaviours online? Herve Cuviliez, CEO of digital agency Diwanee, who spearheaded Wayyana to cater to the needs of women, said: “There are two big problems with privacy. One is the technological side of encrypting information and the other is being as clear as possible of what the rules are when putting any content online.

“Most of the problems happen when people don’t understand what they are doing and it ends up being made public. It’s very important that there is an education of the users because even on very secure networks someone else can read the content. That’s not just for Wayyana but that goes for social media sites across the board. When you put something online it can still be shared and re-published. With Snapchat, when pictures disappear, people can still take a screen grab of the image and use it again somewhere else. It has the potential to spread online. No matter what the social media site, if someone else can access it, people run the risk of it spreading. The more users’ networks grow, the bigger the risk. With Twitter, the concept is crystal clear because everything is public.”

Zoya Sakr, co-owner and editor-in-chief of 2Pure e-publishing, said: “We also have a social media team who work 24 hours who filter all the comments and send them to me.

“We had one fashion writer who posted a picture of a woman praying but she was showing her hair. People reacted to the picture and wanted to spam her account. I had to send the writer a message to explain what happened. She didn’t know – she was just trying to show the clothing.

“We had it removed immediately out of respect to the other users. We are always in contact with our readers and if men try to join sites for women, they get reported by the monitoring team and we delete their accounts.”

The balance of privacy to allow freedom of expression while limiting the dissemination of dangerous information has always been a tricky one.

While the MENA region has tried to maintain some kind of equilibrium between these conflicting elements, it has been the subject of much scrutiny for being one of the most heavily censored regions in the world.

Human rights watchdogs and free speech advocacy groups continue to criticise the media restrictions and repressive legal regimes, and over the past few years, a great number of bloggers and cyber-dissidents have been jailed. More recently, the international rights group, Human Rights Watch, condemned the sentencing of a Saudi Arabian website founder to be whipped 600 times and jailed for seven years for violating Islamic values, saying it undermined the kingdom’s stated support for religious debate.

Raif Badawi, who started the Free Social Liberals website, designed to discuss the role of religion in Saudi, was handed the sentence at a court in Jeddah. “This incredibly harsh sentence for a peaceful blogger makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia’s claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at US-based Human Rights Watch.

Just like blogs, the sole purpose of social networking sites is for users to freely share their perspectives, opinions, thoughts and experiences. That’s the name of the game.

And yet the UAE has tightened its laws on people’s internet use, effectively closing off the opportunity for free speech.

It says citizens who “create or run a website or use the internet to deride or damage the state or its institutions” face up to three years in prison and foreign nationals will be deported.

The institutions include the president, vice-president, any of the rulers of the emirates, their crown princes, the deputy rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols.

The law also prohibits “any person using electronic sites or any information technology means to call for demonstrations, marches and similar activities without a licence being obtained in advance from the competent authorities” – a restriction which could in fact defeat the purpose.

Taking a heavy-handed approach to privacy in the UAE would be putting it mildly and some would say, due to the ambiguity of terms, it could lead to even more self-censorship in the UAE than ever before.

What remains baffling to a majority is that the UAE is also party to the Arab Charter on Human Rights which “ensures the right to information, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression (Article 32) and the rights to freedom of political activity, to form and join associations, and to freedom of assembly and association (Article 24).

The latest cyber laws came at a time when 94 Emiratis were accused of establishing and managing the Al Islah Group, which aims to overthrow the government and destabilise security.

They were all referred to the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi for trial, where 69 were jailed and 25 acquitted. Not to mention one of the defendants’ sons, Abdulla al-Hadidi, who was also jailed for publishing details of the trial “in bad faith” on social media sites.

So how has this affected the way people use social networking sites in the region?

“We have found that there are a minority of people, particularly women, creating fake profiles,” Zafer Younis, founder of The Online Project, said.

He added: “The balance of maintaining a strong level of privacy and keeping to the right side of the law is always going to be a difficult one. It’s impossible to get it right. Even in the US, where social networks were born, they are still figuring it out.

“One of the things that worries me in our region is that it’s much easier to put a law in place but impossible to change it. This happens all across the Arab world. Because of that, people start censoring themselves. I think self-censorship is the most dangerous of all. I hope that our government is proactive in updating the laws.”

With the latest decree now in full force, is it possible to manage a traditionally private culture in an increasingly open world?

Alexandra Tohme says: “I think that it is mainly a political manoeuver designed to quell any unrest, as per the recent case of the 94.

“I think it would be highly unlikely that social media sites can monitor this sort of content as it doesn’t directly contravene their own terms and conditions for content, in the same way as a Facebook group that promotes violence can be taken down by their internal moderators.

“It would be up to the authorities who keep a very close eye on social media sites to identify people who talk about this sort of thing.”