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Jordan’s new cybercrime law takes aim at free speech | #cybercrime | #computerhacker

Date: August 12, 2023
Source: Computer Crime Research Center
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, one of the largest recipients of financial and political support from western countries, is now on a concerning path to join the ranks of totalitarian states. In a bold move, it is rolling out a comprehensive legal framework designed to monitor and manipulate social media.

This intricate system comes packed with provisions that compel social media platforms to conform to the authorities’ wishes or face being banned under the new legislation. Moreover, these platforms are required to establish physical offices in Jordan for legal notifications, introducing a precedent that could inspire other states to follow suit.

The law’s articles contain harsh penalties for both activists and ordinary citizens. For example, the mere act of posting a comment or content that doesn’t align with the authorities’ views, fines reaching up to approximately $30,000 await, potentially amounting to five times the average annual income of ordinary Jordanians.

This is an astounding crackdown on freedom of expression that’s hard to ignore, highlighted most recently with the court order and arrest of Jordanian journalist Heba Abu Taha on 8 August. Her crime? Jordan’s Cybercrime Unit provided evidence she had written a post on Facebook criticizing Jordanian King Abdallah over ties with Israel.

Erosion of Jordan’s freedoms

The Jordanian authorities have taken a proactive approach by forging an authoritarian alliance, comprising states infamous for their dismal records on civil liberties, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.

This coalition has rallied for a resolution within the Arab League to confront and negotiate with communication companies. They propose imposing conditions under the banner of preserving religious and cultural values, combatting hate speech and extremism, and safeguarding privacy ??” a strategy seemingly aimed at suppressing political dissent cleverly disguised as noble intentions.

Context is vital in understanding this controversial bill. Jordan’s democratic freedoms have plummeted dramatically: The country was recently reclassified from a partially free state to a tyrannical one in Freedom House’s report. Disturbing revelations from a report in June by The Cradle have also unveiled the government’s use of foreign intelligence to stifle media dissent, even at the level of the royal palace.

Reports of social media accounts belonging to Jordanian activists – both domestic and abroad ??” being inexplicably blocked on major platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have surfaced, with suggestions of secret cooperation between these platforms and the authorities.

Consolidating power

The situation is even more dire for activists within Jordan, who face a barrage of constraints ranging from intermittent detention and invasive surveillance with spyware such as Pegasus to unjust job denials and illicit travel bans. A staggering number of activists have been affected by these repressive measures.

These stringent tactics are Amman’s desperate bid to regain control after being outshone by activists in the media and ethical battle. These activists have unveiled administrative corruption, financial misconduct, and the deep-seated political failings of the Jordanian political establishment.

Instead of adopting reforms in line with public sentiment, the government took a different path in early 2022, orchestrating constitutional amendments that granted the king even greater powers. This maneuver effectively reduced the government to a mere puppet, enabling the monarch’s unchecked totalitarian rule.

These proposed legal amendments have arrived at a critical time for Jordan – and indeed for many Arab states across the region – against the backdrop of a significant US effort to reshape the regional landscape, a strategy known as the “integration of Israel into its surroundings.” For Jordan, this presents a formidable challenge, as it is targeted to be the proposed “alternative homeland” for Palestinians??”an idea put forward by Israel.

Dissent against diplomacy with Israel

Simultaneously, Jordan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been marred by escalating tensions in recent years. This friction reached a peak with the trial of Bassem Awadallah, the former head of the Jordanian Royal Court and a special adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). The charges revolved around an alleged attempt to orchestrate a coup against the Jordanian king, purportedly aimed at aiding Hamza bin Hussein, the king’s half-brother who relinquished his royal title last year.

In the face of these complex dynamics, the Jordanian monarchy’s long-established internal understandings are experiencing tremors due to regional shifts. The kingdom is further grappling with daunting economic challenges and the lingering aftermath of the Arab Spring, marked by the public’s eagerness to voice their political opinions openly.

Additionally, Arab states that have engaged in diplomatic relations with Israel find themselves under fire from their own people. This discontent arises from opinion polls that reveal a popular consensus across Arab countries – including Jordan – against normalization with Israel.

These converging factors underscore a shared realization among several Arab states about the potential of social media as a primary platform for political expression. This recognition emerges against a backdrop where traditional avenues for meaningful political engagement appear limited. In response to this perceived “threat,” these governments have been tightening their grip on any form of political discourse that doesn’t align with their interests.

Unchecked power

The amendments to the cybercrime law have successfully passed through both Jordan’s House of Representatives and its Senate, acting on directives from the General Intelligence Service. Presently, the bill awaits the final endorsement of the king.

However, undisclosed sources reveal to The Cradle that King Abdallah has been taken aback by the international backlash, prompting contemplation on postponing the ratification for several weeks or even reconsidering it should international reactions escalate further.

Notably, the US State Department has expressed strong condemnation of the bill, citing its potential to undermine investment prospects in Jordan. Furthermore, 14 rights groups have slammed the “draconian” laws in a collective statement that urges the restoration of the law.

They assert that the new, proposed law vests unchecked power in the hands of the prosecutor and executive branch, enabling them to block social media platforms and exercise content control devoid of judicial oversight.

It is important to note that this law, in conjunction with the cooperation of other Arab states, aims to secure compliance from social media companies with judgments from the Jordanian judiciary??”a judiciary that, in large part, operates under the influence of the kingdom’s top authorities.

This same judiciary has issued numerous unjust sentences against Jordanian critics and has previously mandated the closure of activists’ social media pages. Furthermore, the newly amended law empowers the public prosecutor to issue immediate orders – bypassing judicial authorization – to block communication platforms that refuse to censor specific content and impede public access within Jordan.

Content removal for control

Of particular concern is Article 33, which stipulates that social media platforms must delete content contravening the prevailing legislation in Jordan. This, in effect, attempts to compel social media platforms to remove all content, posts, comments, accounts, and pages critical of the king, the royal family, or Jordanian public policy. Such criticisms are already prohibited by provisions within the penal code.

The real reason for these amendments is clear: it is not about fighting hate speech, nor about fighting terrorism, but focuses on fighting freedom of expression and restricting peaceful political dissent.

Article 37 of the same law dictates that communication platforms establish offices within Jordan to receive official notifications. Informal sources have revealed that the competent authorities established a specialized, full-time judicial body for addressing social media complaints weeks ago, anticipating a surge in complaints, primarily targeting opposition activists.

This same article also contains a clause enabling the prosecution of offenders both within and outside the country, revealing the authorities’ intent to censor content critical of them, emanating from both domestic and international activists.

The requirement for platforms to establish physical offices within the country is concerning for two reasons: firstly, it solidifies a partnership between Jordan and other authoritarian states that will adopt similar measures, and secondly, it establishes a precedent that could inspire authoritarian states outside the region to follow suit.

As for Jordanian activists abroad, the government sees them as such a serious threat that the intelligence services have planned hostile actions against them.

Activists against authoritarianism

Previously, social media platforms have acquiesced to requests from various countries concerning the removal of specific content and the acquisition of user information. However, these actions typically revolved around cases of domestic or cross-border criminal offenses,…

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