6-14-2011By Hannah Gross
Programs and Policy
The U.S. State Department’s increased efforts to combat Internet censorship and promote greater access worldwide has been given momentum by the Internet shutdown during the Egyptian revolution—a New York Times report finds. Such initiatives affirm the need to reform Egypt’s Law 10/2003—the law that regulates the country’s telecommunications industry—to ensure the Egyptian people have uncensored access to the Internet.
The Mubarak regime used Law 10/2003 to justify the Internet shutdown on January 28, 2011, contacting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and demanding that they cut off service. Three specific aspects of Law 10/2003 contributed to the shutdown: (1)the telecommunications industry’s close ties to the military, (2)the lack of independence of its regulatory authority, and (3) the regulatory authority’s lack of transparency.
In February, Human Rights First addressed a letter to Egyptian ISPs, urging them to reveal more details about the shutdown. Linkdotnet, one of Egypt’s leading ISPs, responded to HRF’s letter, explaining that the shutdown was mandated by a section of Law 10/2003 that “states that all telecom providers have to comply with national security orders during specified circumstances.”
This law lists “protecting national security” as a priority and mandates military involvement in many aspects of the telecommunications industry—from clearing imports to collaborating on the establishment of a radio frequency system. Countries that have undergone processes of democratization in recent decades, like Latvia and South Africa, do not have national security as a priority for their telecommunications industry. And both countries have legal safeguards against military or other forms of state control.
Linkdotnet also explained that Egypt’s National Telecommunications Regulation Authority (NTRA) was directed by the security forces to order the Internet shutdown. In Egypt, the NTRA is closely linked to the government and especially the military. Whereas other newly democratized countries specify in their telecommunications laws that regulatory authorities must be independent, the Egyptian law does not require the NTRA’s independence from the government. Additionally, Law 10/2003 further precludes the NTRA’s independence by stipulating that eight of the authority’s fifteen governing board members must be representatives of state institutions or the military. This provision provides a stark contrast to other international telecommunications laws, which prohibit members of the regulatory authorities from being members of federal or local governments.
The NTRA must become an independent and effective regulatory authority. It should do so by removing governmemntal control and by improving transparency. Latvia’s Law on Regulators of Public Utilities—a strong example of a law mandating a transparent and independent regulatory authority—provides ways in which Egypt’s NTRA could be more transparent. The Latvian law, for example, requires regulatory authorities to publish decisions about licensing in the government newspaper and internet homepage “within 30 days from the date of the relevant decision.” Egyptian citizens desiring information on licensing, on the other hand, must submit a “written request…to be informed about the mentioned registered data.” Egyptian authorities could use Latvia’s law, as well as those of other newly democratized countries, as a model of regulatory transparency.
At such a critical moment for Egypt, when the country is not only forming a new and democratic government, but also reliant upon the technology and communications sector to reinvigorate its economy, the need for a reformed telecommunications law could not be more pressing.
Fortunately, members of the government have recognized the necessity of reform. According to Minister Magued Osman, the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is in the process of “drafting…a new telecommunications law,” which will be published in July. Revising the law to create an independent and transparent regulatory authority for the telecommunications industry would be an important step toward maintaining the democratizing goals of the revolution.