Ten years ago today, Egyptians took to the streets to topple a dictator who had clung to power for nearly three decades. January 25th remains one of the most important dates of the Arab Spring, a series of massive, civilian-led protests and uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago. Using social media and other digital technologies to spread the word and amplify their organizing, people across the region demanded an end to the corruption and authoritarian rule that had plagued their societies.
Despite setbacks, much of the work that was started in 2011 is still ongoing.
A decade later, the fallout from this upheaval has taken countries in different directions. While Tunisia immediately abolished its entrenched Internet censorship regime and took steps toward democracy, other countries in the region—such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain—have implemented more and more tools for censorship and surveillance. From the use of Western-made spyware to target dissidents to collusion with US social media companies to censor journalism, the hope once expressed by tech firms has been overlaid with cynical amoral profiteering.
As we consider the role that social media and online platforms have played in the U.S. in recent months, it’s both instructive and essential to remember the events that took place a decade ago, and how policies and decisions made at the time helped to strengthen (or, in some cases, handicap) those democratic movements. There are also worthwhile parallels to be drawn between calls in the U.S. for stronger anti-terrorism laws and the shortsighted cybercrime and counterterrorism laws passed by other countries after the upheaval. And as governments today wield new, dangerous technologies, such as face surveillance, to identify Black Lives Matter protestors as well as those responsible for the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, we must be reminded of the expansive surveillance regimes that developed in many Middle Eastern and North African countries over the last ten years as well.
But most importantly, we must remember that a decade later, despite setbacks, much of the work that was started in 2011 is still ongoing.
EFF’s Work In the Region
Just a few weeks prior to the January 25th protest in Egypt, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire in Tunisia in protest of the government’s corruption and brutality. Following his death, others in the country began to protest. These protests in Tunisia and Egypt inspired others throughout the region—and indeed, throughout the world—to rise up and fight for their rights, but they were often met with violent pushback. EFF focused heavily at the time on lifting up those voices who fought against censorship, for free expression, and for expanding digital rights. A detailed history of the issues EFF tracked at the time would be too lengthy to cover here, but a few instances stand out and help shine a light on what the region is experiencing now.
A Social Media Revolution?
Many governments have long seen social media as a potential threat. In the early part of the new millennium, countries across the globe were engaged in a wide variety of censorship and even wholesale restrictions to platforms, and even Internet access as a whole. As the use of social media accelerated, governments took action: Thailand blocked YouTube in 2006; Facebook was blocked in Syria in 2007; countries from Turkey to Tunisia to Iran followed suit. Within a few years, tech companies were inundated with governmental requests to block access for some users or to take down specific content. For the most part, they agreed, though some companies, like Twitter, didn’t do so until much later.
In 2010, a picture of the body of Khaleed Saeed, who had been brutally murdered by Egyptian police, began to spread across Facebook. Pseudonymous organizers created a page to memorialize Saeed that quickly gathered followers and became the place at which the now-famous 25th of January protests were first called for.
But although Facebook was later happy to take credit for the role it played in the uprising, the company actually took the page down just two months prior because its administrators were violating the platform’s “real name” policy—only restoring it after allies stepped in to help.
Another emblematic incident from that era occurred when photo-sharing platform Flickr removed images of Mubarak’s security offices liberated by activists from Cairo’s state security offices in the days following the revolution. Journalist Hossam Hamalawy protested the company’s decision, which was allegedly made on the basis of a bogus copyright claim, prompting debate among civil society as to whether Flickr’s decision had been appropriate.
Overcoming Censorship, Fighting for Free Expression in Egypt
As governments in the region tried to stop the impact of the protests, and to minimize the spread of dissent on social media, critics were often jailed, including bloggers. But many of these critics were charged for merely expressing themselves online. EFF took particular note of the cases of Maikel Nabil Sanad and Ayman Youssef Mansour, the first and second bloggers in post-Mubarak Egypt to be sentenced to jail for their online expression.
It's clear that the Arab Spring was a turning point for free expression online.
While the Mubarak regime had utilized emergency law to silence voices, the military shut up bloggers at whim. Sanad was sentenced, by a military court, to three years in prison for accusing the military of having conducted virginity tests on female protesters (a charge later found to be true). EFF highlighted his case numerous times, and reported on his eventual release, granted alongside 1,959 other prisoners as a marker of the first anniversary of the revolution.
Mansour was tried by a civilian court and found to be "in contempt of religion," a crime under article 98(f) of the Penal Code. His crime was joking about Islam on Facebook.
Today, EFF and other human rights organizations continue to advocate for the release of jailed Egyptian activists who have been arrested by the current regime in an attempt to silence their voices. Alaa Abd El Fattah‚ who has been arrested (and eventually released) by every Egyptian head of state, including during the revolution‚ and Amal Fathy, an activist for women’s rights, are just two of the prominent critics of the government whose use of the Internet has cost them their freedom. EFF’s “Offline” campaign showcases key cases across the globe of individuals who have been silenced, and who may not be receiving wide coverage, but that we believe speak to a wider audience concerned with online freedom.
A Tunisian Internet Agency Becomes A Hacker Space
The lasting effects of the Arab Spring in Tunisia have been notable. Tunisians under the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime experienced curtailed digital rights, including the blocking of websites and the surveillance of citizens. Tunisian free expression advocates worked for years to raise awareness of the country’s pervasive Internet controls, and in 2011, amidst the “Jasmine Revolution,” Ben Ali promised to end the filtering in his final speech on January 13, before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
This created a dilemma for the Agence Tunisienne d'Internet (ATI) or Tunisian Internet Agency, which was caught in the middle of implementing censorship orders and arguing in support of free expression. EFF followed the battle and the online protests that ensued as Tunisians fought for freedom from censorship. The country’s highest court ruled against the filtering in 2012, and ATI’s headquarters, formerly a private home of Ben Ali and his regime’s censorship and surveillance technologies, became a hackerspace for Tunisians to innovate, #404labs. EFF was there to celebrate, and the site has since hosted events such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the Arab Bloggers Meeting.
Syria and Tunisia Spy On Their Own
As protests spread throughout Syria in 2011, bloggers and programmers were often the targets of threats, attacks, and detention by the Bashar al-Assad regime. While this harassment was public, a secret danger also lurked in cyberspace: the Syrian government, after having blocked various sites such as Facebook for years, was covertly surveilling online activity and communications throughout the country via both malware and “Man-in-the-middle” attacks on Facebook. The extent of the surveillance was not well known before the Arab Spring.
Around this same time in Tunisia, reports of hacked Facebook pages tipped off that company’s security team that the nation’s ISPs were essentially recording and stealing the entire country’s worth of Facebook passwords from anyone who logged into the site. Presumably, this information was then being fed to the Ben Ali regime in an effort to remove protest pages from the site. The company’s response, to implement the encrypted HTTPS protocol for the country, helped spur it to do so elsewhere later. Awareness of the detail of spying both during and after the Arab Spring has not only helped protect activists from their government, it has also spurred the adoption of safer, more secure online communications methods—a benefit to all who desire private communications.
Today’s Issues in the Region Reflect What Changed, and What Was Lost
The Arab Spring was a turning point for free expression online. Across the region, people fought for digital rights, and in some cases, thanks to them, for the first time. From Pakistan and Syria to Iran and Egypt, residents defended and improved their human rights thanks to secure communications and censorship-free social media platforms.
But even as new technology assisted the revolution, tech companies continued (and continue) to assist governments in the silencing, and surveillance, of their critics. Earlier this year, a group of activists, journalists, and human rights organizations sent an open letter to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, demanding that the companies stop silencing critical voices from the Middle East and North Africa. Noting that key activists and journalists throughout the Middle East and North Africa continue to be censored on the platforms, sometimes at the behest of other governments, the letter urges the companies to “end their complicity in the censorship and erasure of the oppressed communities’ narratives and histories,” and makes several important demands.
In particular, the letter urges the companies to:
- Engage with local users, activists, human rights experts, academics, and civil society;
- Invest in the local and regional expertise to develop and implement context-based content moderation decisions;
- Pay special attention to cases arising from war and conflict zones to ensure content moderation decisions do not unfairly target marginalized communities;
- Preserve restricted content related to cases arising from war and conflict zones that is made unavailable;
- Provide greater transparency and notice when it comes to deletions and account takedowns, and offer meaningful and timely appeals for users, in accordance with the Santa Clara Principles
The Arab Spring may seem to present us with a conundrum. As more governments around the world have chosen authoritarianism in the days since, platforms have often contributed to repression. But the legacy of activists and citizens using social media to push for political change and social justice lives on. We now know that the Internet, and technology as a whole, can enable human rights. Today, more people than ever understand that digital rights are themselves human rights. But like all rights, they must be defended, fought for, and protected against those who would rather hold onto power than share it—whether they lead a government or a tech company.
Years ago, Bassel Safadi Khartabil, the Syrian open source developer, blogger, entrepreneur, hackerspace founder, and free culture advocate, wrote to EFF that “code is much more than tools. It's an education that opens youthful minds, and moves nations forward. Who can stop that? No-one.” In 2015, after several years of imprisonment without trial, Bassel was executed by the Syrian government. He is missed dearly, along with the many, many others who were killed in their fight for basic rights and freedoms. While the Arab Spring as it is commonly referred to may be over, for so many, it has never ended. Some day, we hope, it will.
All photos credit Jillian C. York.