The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) and ARTICLE 19 release today a new legal analysis of Egypt’s Telecommunication Regulation Law (Law 10 of 2003).
This analysis is part of a broader legal review of current legislation that is aimed at amending laws on freedom of expression and freedom of information, to bring them into conformity with Egypt’s constitution and international human rights standards.
Egypt’s 2014 constitution makes clear that these standards are binding on Egypt. Article 93 reads: ‘The State shall be bound by the international human rights agreements, covenants and conventions ratified by Egypt, and which shall have the force of law after publication in accordance with the prescribed conditions.’
The law regulates telecommunications networks and services. It aims to ensure the appropriate use of the radio spectrum, and to ensure telecommunications services for all areas of Egypt, including remote areas. It also aims to ensure the privacy of communications, and to establish a regulatory authority for the telecommunications sector. In spite of these commendable aims, it appears that the law has failed to ensure fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
In January 2011, at the outset of the Egyptian revolution, the law was used to shut down free expression. The law was used as the legal basis for a decree that totally shut down mobile and internet networks during the Egyptian revolution of January 2011. After the revolution, several civil society organizations challenged the legality of the shutdown decree in a case before the Council of State, Egypt’s highest administrative court.
The court ruled that the Egyptian government’s closure of telecommunications services exposed the security and lives of Egyptians to unnecessary dangers. It said that the shutdown decree contravened general freedoms and constitutional protections for the right to communicate, freedom of expression, the right to privacy, media rights, and the right to access information.
AFTE and ARTICLE 19 presented some of the report’s conclusions to a meeting of the League of Arab States and the European Union in Brussels in April 2015. The report argues that the Council of State’s ruling helps set out an agenda for reform of telecommunications regulation in Egypt. Egyptian judges have emphasized the importance of the right to free expression and the right to communicate during national emergencies. The AFTE/ ARTICLE 19 legal analysis sets out, from the perspective of international law, the legal changes that are needed if Egyptian telecommunications law is to ensure that Egypt lives up to its constitutional and international commitments to protect fundamental freedoms in Egypt.
The report makes several recommendations. Currently, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is embedded in the state and required to protect its supreme interests. The report recommends that the law should be amended to ensure that the authority is independent of government and focused on protecting free expression. The law gives extensive licensing powers to the authority. The report recommends that licensing of telecommunications networks and services should be limited to areas where public regulation is required, and the process of granting or withholding licences should be transparent. The law allows for broad restrictions on access to communications technology. The report recommends that restrictions on import, manufacture and sale of equipment should be limited to the aim of maintaining technical standards. The law recognizes the inviolability of private life, but defines national security broadly and vaguely, and gives the security services broad and vaguely-worded powers to access private information and encryption systems. The report recommends that surveillance and interception should only be authorized by a court of law, in the case of absolute necessity and in the absence of other means. Finally, the report recommends that the possibility of cutting off access to the internet to the whole population should be removed from the law entirely.