Cyberspace Crime Law: Concerns, Reassurances, and Thoughts

Jordan’s ICT Ministry published the text of the latest Cyberspace Crime Law recently, introducing some regulation, but also protection and possible restrictions to the largely unregulated IT sector in Jordan. The law is a major step forward for privacy and security, creating punishments for unauthorized access of all types, as well as unauthorized modification of data, etc. But the text of the law at certain articles is vague, providing multiple possibilities of interpretation and thus some concerns.

Note that I translated all relevant snippets from Arabic to English myself, and I am by no means qualified to give a proper legal translation or correct legal terminology. It is only done for the sole purpose of giving context to non-Arabic readers and not to be taken seriously as correct technical interpretations.

Concerns

Article 8 is probably the greatest possible concern, stating:

المادة8- كل من قام قصداً بإرسال أو نشر بيانات أو معلومات عن طريق الشبكة المعلوماتية أو أي نظام معلومات تنطوي على ذم أو قدح أو تحقير أي شخص يعاقب بغرامة لا تقل عن (100) مائة دينار ولا تزيد على (2000) ألفي دينار.

Translated:

Article 8- Any person who has, on purpose, sent or published figures or information via the Web or any other network to vilify or slander or insult any person is punished by a fine no less that one hundred Jordanian Dinars and no more than two thousand Jordanian Dinars.

In theoretical terms, the article is actually healthy, as it legitimizes the Internet as a normal continuation of a physical world, where accountability and responsibility still exists, and where the author or creator of information is still responsible for one’s words, just as one is in the physical world. The problem, however, is two-fold:

  1. The first problem is the general nature of the offense. While the article appears to target libel, slander, and defamation, however, the final (أو تحقير = or insult) is concerning as it might generalize the article to include all insults/attacks, as opposed to defamation/libel. A common requirement for defamation is that the claim is non-factual and communicated to those other than the defamed individual. The vague and general final term to describe the offense, might be interpreted to render these requirements moot. For instance, if an individual blogs about a government figure and sharply criticizes him with correct information, making valid corruption allegations, it is an insult in general but not libel/defamation. The lack of a specific meaning to the term used makes this concerning.
  2. The second problem, which is greater, is that it provides no context-requirement. For instance, the article doesn’t address articles only, or publications, or blogs, but “any communication”. I personally agree with subjecting online publications, articles, and even blogs to such article. I’d also agree with subjecting mass e-mails, or perhaps hall e-mails (i.e. person A sending e-mail to businessman B, slandering potential client/partner/employee C) (side not: provided no external monitoring by the government). However, when it comes to blog comments, online forums, chat websites, etc. I think such article becomes a violation of freedom of expression.

What do you think?

Article 9 also uses general terminology which I found open to much interpretation. Subsection (a) of Article 9 states:

المادة 9- أ- كل من أرسل أو نشر عن طريق نظام معلومات أو الشبكة المعلوماتية قصداً كل ما هو مسموع أو مقروء أو مرئي مناف للحياء موجه إلى أو يمس شخصا لم يبلغ الثامنة عشرة من العمر يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تقل عن ثلاثة اشهر وبغرامة لا تقل عن (300) ثلاثمائة دينار ولا تزيد على (5000) خمسة ألاف دينار.

The article basically prohibits “indecent” materials that targets (or is accessible to) those below age of 18, as well as indecent material that affects those below age 18. The article supposedly refers to sexually indecent material, whether in writing, imagery, or video. The problem however is the social meaning for indecent may also be open to interpretation. Would it include an insult on religion? Would it include a religious debate? Someone claiming that Religion A is a fairy tale? Certainly by standards of our society these are considered indecent. Is that possible? I don’t think its a serious concern, but certainly more concise terminology (as achieved by sub-section B of the very same article) can help.

Article 13b+c are another concern, perhaps more valid than the previous one. 13b goes to state (truncated):

… يجوز لموظفي الضابطة العدلية ضبط الأجهزة والأدوات والبرامج والأنظمة والوسائل المستخدمة في ارتكاب أي من الجرائم المنصوص عليها أو يشملها هذا القانون والأموال المتحصلة منها والتحفظ على المعلومات والبيانات المتعلقة بارتكاب أي منها.

Basically stating that authorities have the right to possess or confiscate any equipment or tools or software or systems and “methods”  used to commit any of the mentioned offenses and retaining related information and data.

Sub-section c goes further:

ج- للمحكمة المختصة الحكم بمصادرة الأجهزة و الأدوات والوسائل وتوقيف أو تعطيل عمل أي نظام معلومات أو موقع الكتروني مستخدم في ارتكاب أي من الجرائم المنصوص عليها أو يشملها هذا القانون ومصادرة الأموال المتحصلة من تلك الجرائم والحكم بإزالة المخالفة على نفقة مرتكب الجريمة.

Translated:

c- Respective courts have the right to rule to confiscate equipment, tools, and methods, as well as terminate or disable any ICT system or Internet Website used to commit any of the crimes described and included in this Law, and the confiscation of funds obtained from these crimes, and ruling to remove the offense on the expense of those guilty.

Again, this is certainly important and valuable taking into consideration articles that refer to terrorism, national security, pornographic materials, etc. However, given the existence of Article 8, does any form of libel warrant the mere possibility of confiscation of servers or information. And given the concerns on the general nature of Articles 8 and 9, could such a procedure of confiscation of servers or retaining information be a restriction on internet freedom?

I am one who truly believes in the goodwill  of the government. As such, I am comfortable that the government will not take any extreme measures to make the worst of these concerns into truth, ever; however, I am still uncomfortable, and again the reason is two-fold:

  1. The potential for abuse is there. While right now the probability of such abuse is zero for all intents and purposes, the potential that such abuse would arise one day, by a future government or under different circumstances in the future, is there. And this can be easily circumvented.
  2. Some of these offenses, especially the ones mentioned above, will allow the general public to seek the judicial branch (article 17). Here, vagueness of some of the terms, as well as the possibility for interpretation, combined with the strong powers given to the court, creates greater potential for abuses by the public against owners of websites expressing themselves, facilitated by the courts.

Reassurances

The law finally provides protections to owners of websites and their users by restricting access to equipment, files, data, and information, addressing hacking, and providing a range of punishments depending on the nature of access violations. The term also refers to important cyber crimes, such as Article 11 which addresses those who attempt to use cyberspace to facilitate terrorist activities, subjecting these persons to hard labor.

Article 17 itself, while addressed in the concerns section, is a great step forward to make Jordan grow as a state of Law and Institutions, per the king’s vision. Article 17 reserves the general public’s right to seek justice for any violation personally through our legal institutions. With liberal and progressive interpretations of the laws, and care from the judicial branch, we will have a population that hold one another accountable, and a population that is responsible to one another on the internet, as it is in the “physical world”.