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February 13, 2013

President’s Pledge to Protect Rights in Egypt Tested by Google Threat

Washington, DC – Human Rights First praises President Obama for using his State of the Union address to reaffirm that in its policies towards countries in transition from authoritarianism in North Africa, like Egypt, the United States will “insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.”

The challenge of living up to this pledge was made clear today in Egypt. The head of the Egypt’s National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), Abdel Rahman al-Sawi, stated that compliance with a court ordered month long shut down of YouTube will also require officials to shut down Google. The YouTube court order was handed down just days ago in punishment for the website’s showing the offensive “Innocence of Muslims” video.

“The government’s decision to take such a massively disproportionate and destructive step would violate the rights of millions of Egyptians to express themselves freely and to access information available through Google services,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “Denying access to Google would also inflict further harm on Egypt’s economy,  already devastated by years of political uncertainty.”  During the popular uprising that brought down President Mubarak in 2011 the authorities shut down all Internet services in Egypt, a step that inflicted billions of dollars of damage on the Egyptian economy.

The court judgment underlines the dangers of seeking to use the courts to police offensive or blasphemous speech.  The Internet provides access to a limitless supply of material that some would find to be offensive, but denying access to all Internet content, or all Google services, is self-destructive, and probably futile.  Instead of inserting a concept that is hostile to human rights and basic freedoms in its laws and constitution, Egypt should be strengthening legal safeguards for basic rights and freedoms.

According to Human Rights First, Al-Sawi’s announcement underscores the risks that companies face when the Internet and telecommunications sector is subject to political pressure, and government routinely uses its emergency powers to maintain control. The NTRA, like many state institutions in Egypt, is dominated by members with links to state security institutions, and it operates with insufficient regard for fundamental rights and freedoms. Restricting freedom of speech violates Egypt’s obligations in international law and contributes to misunderstanding and violence.

“To fulfill President Obama’s pledge to ‘insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people,’ the United States government should place a higher priority on ensuring that the Internet and telecommunications systems – which are vital to protecting democratic freedoms and a strong economy – are  regulated in a law-based, transparent manner and protected from political threats,” Hicks observed.

Google and other companies are on the front line of these types of political threats. While Google has rightly resisted calls for censorship of the video that led to the YouTube order, today’s announcement underscores the fact that companies need governments in states where they operate, as well as the international community, to create and maintain strong legal frameworks that uphold respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

Human Rights First urges the administration to make good on the president’s State of the Union promise to refocus U.S. policies towards Egypt on prioritizing the protection and advancement of basic rights and freedoms. This must include freedom of association, freedom of expression, the rights of women and of religious minorities.  Advancing these fundamental rights and protecting these freedoms will best ensure that Egypt makes progress towards establishing a democracy in the Arab world’s most populous and influential country.

For more information, please read Human Rights First’s recently released blueprints How to Make Change in Egypt a Human Rights Success Storyand How to Protect and Expand Internet Freedom. To speak with Hicks, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder atbowsersoderb@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3323.