Bread&Net 2020nline | Corporates, Governments and the Pandemic: Threats to Digital Freedom

Bread&Net 2020nline welcomed more than 800 participants from 32 countries on Hopin this year! Over four eventful days, we held 63 diverse sessions, with over 100 speakers who joined us to share their valuable insights.

Totalitarian Arab regimes, monopolized telecommunications infrastructures, armies of bots promoting fake news, increased surveillance disguised as COVID-19 tracking apps, among other challenges, have all caused quite the stir in digital communities in the MENA region. Moved by this reality, experts from a wide range of fields passionately reported and discussed their findings, concerns, and recommendations as they reflected back on 2020.

Bread&Net 2020nline shed light on many of the issues that threaten freedom of speech, accessibility to the internet, and digital security today. Discussions addressed policies pertaining to privacy, content moderation and accessibility following the expansion of the digital sphere amidst COVID-19. The unconference also highlighted how vulnerable communities are countering hate-speech and targeted attacks online, as well as the wave of state-backed internet shutdowns infecting the region.

This year, we aimed for wider accessibility to all our participants by providing sign language interpretation during the sessions. Bread&Net also held much-needed discussions on digital inclusion for people with disabilities, where speakers warned against the growing gap between technology and digital accessibility in the region. They insisted that governments should pay greater attention to deploying current tools that allow for greater inclusion in the Arabic-speaking world, as there are many existing models that we can adopt here.

Bread&Net covered five broad themes this year: policy and advocacy in difficult contexts, digital security education and practice, resilient communities, tech-knowledgy, and autonomous alternatives. Here are the five takeaways from Bread&Net 2020nline!

Policy and Advocacy in Difficult Contexts

The online civic space is a shrinking, increasingly surveilled sphere, subject not only to the policies of governments, but to those of private sector companies and tech platforms. This is a particularly serious concern as COVID-19 has accelerated our dependence on digital communication.

The past year has revealed the growing role of tech companies in moderating content in the MENA region. Content bias on Facebook is especially harmful for Palestinians, and it is bound to become more so if the IHRA’s definition of Anti-semitism is deployed, rendering Palestinian voices online “radical, extremist and terrorist,” as Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy Manager at AccessNow, warned. In a session with SMEX’s Executive Director, Mohamad Najem, Thomas Hughes, the Director of Facebook Oversight Board Administration, encouraged users and civil society to push forth more appeals regarding content moderation. Similarly, Facebook’s MENA Human Rights and Public Policy Manager, Shahed al-Hindi, stressed that although AI algorithms are responsible for a lot of deleted content, much of it then gets restored.

In Lebanon, laws that guarantee citizens’ right to access information are not applied in most institutions, instead, obtaining data becomes a “favor.” Additionally, journalists in Lebanon and the region are forced to censor themselves due to official and unofficial surveillance. The only real, promising antidote would need to happen through political change on the governmental level, rather than simply amending laws, according to Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation in Beirut.

In many Arab countries, these laws are nonexistent. “The government uses any law that would criminalize online speech. Everyone knows their limits. Our government can sue you under any law for any word they don’t want to hear from people,” cautioned Nahla Hamadani during Bread&Net.

The internet can no longer be viewed as merely a network of services, but rather an essential public utility, capable of inciting political and social reformation. Similarly, the issue of accessibility is no longer simply about providing internet services for all, but entails ensuring users have access to valuable content—not subject to site-blocking, bias, weak services and governmental censorship. Unfortunately, as many speakers have noted in Bread&Net’s sessions, these challenges remain prevalent in the region.

Digital Security Education and Practice  

Covid-19 has posed new challenges to online security, especially in countries where using patient-tracking apps has become mandatory—complicating existing threats. The problem with these apps is that they require access permission to sensitive data, such as calendars, photos, geographic location, and in some countries, these apps go as far as taking photos, without notifying users. Some protective measures presented in the sessions include using multiple email addresses and personal accounts, constantly updating software and hardware, and using two-step verification whenever available, among others.

“There are three types of COVID-19 apps: ones that allow you to add your own symptoms, others are contact-tracing apps via bluetooth where data remains on phones, and finally—and the most dangerous among them—are apps that track users via GPS,” according to Ali Sibai, Digital Security Expert at SMEX.

Corporations in the region also regularly neglect cursor privacy. In one instance, Tunisian company Orange Tunisia discarded 1,500 copies of ID cards and passports in the streets, without ever being held accountable for such a privacy breach. Time and again, telecommunications companies in the region have shown their lack of commitment to publishing clear privacy policies, while governments failed to impose laws that would protect citizens’ personal data. Companies should respect human rights, and this should be established in all corporate practices. “What works in the US doesn’t work in our region,” affirmed 7amleh’s Mona Shtayya. “In the case of Palestinian content, it [describes the reality] in occupied Palestinian territories. We have our own law and the Israeli law should not be adopted by social media companies against Palestinians.”

Resilient Communities

Regionally, we’re witnessing a rise in violence and hate speech against marginalized groups, who are forced to navigate a digital sphere that is dominated by censorship, state policing, and religious and ideological fundamentalism. Many Bread&Net sessions focused on the challenges faced by women and the LBGTQI community online.

In a session on criminalizing online space in Egypt, speakers discussed how women are being suppressed by the Egyptian authorities and society, while social media companies benefit greatly from such exploitations. For instance, male Youtubers are using content by women for provocation and incitement, while profiting off of that content.

Not only that, but many female Tiktok users in Egypt are being prosecuted for their videos, under the pretext of posting immoral content that threatens family values. As such, the prosecution continues to play a disciplinary role against women while stirring violence against them among their families. Lawyer Ayman Zughdoudi from ARTICLE 19 indicated that “communication websites should reject the Egyptian authorities’ requests to obtain user data and determine their location, so as not to take part in the repression practiced against [women].”

In Lebanon, and especially following the October 17 revolution, Twitter has been flooded with hate-speech, bullying, cyber-harassment and anti-feminist content against women journalists and activists. “Some [Twitter] accounts move from questioning the credibility of journalists to attacking activists and exposing their family matters. Women are exposed to it more than others, and sometimes campaigns are organized [against them],” stated Lebanese journalist Luna Safwan in one of Bread&Net’s sessions.

In Iraq, journalist Tahseen Al-Zarkani presented a dictionary for monitoring hate speech on social media platforms in Iraq, particularly on Twitter, prepared in cooperation with the American Peace Technologies Laboratory. Yet, one challenge to such initiatives is that the Arab region deals with a diverse range of dialects, which makes it harder to detect toxic content in Arabic online, according to Dr. Hala Mulki, Data Scientist working in computational linguistics.

Tech-knowledgy & Autonomous Alternatives 

Digitization has clearly had a profound impact on our modes of expression, communication and governance, in times of crisis as well as peace. It also plays a significant role in the evolution of the modern Arab identity, allowing us to explore, practice, construct, preserve and disseminate our cultural narratives both locally and globally.

Shadi Abu Zahra stated that “there are open-source digital alternatives that are cheaper than others, which we need in the Arab region, and we must work to translate and adapt them to our Arabic language. We know that many people with disabilities have entered the digital sphere, and therefore it should facilitate inclusiveness, access, and cheap cost.”

In addition to panels, we had many great workshops that took place during Bread&Net 2020. One of them was Britta Senn’s workshop on how to digitize face-to-face workshops, providing tips and tools to make the shift easier. These include creating light-hearted situations by integrating jokes and stories during online sessions and taking time to rest and recuperate, all while keeping in mind that many of us are tired of constantly being online.


Thank You Note 

We are grateful for everyone’s participation in this year’s Bread&Net, and we look forward to hosting another successful conference in 2021.

Until then, let’s keep the conversation going through SMEX’s online channels. Stay in the loop by following us on facebook and twitter, and get the latest news from the region by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.

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Nourhane Kazak

Nourhane Kazak is the English editor at SMEX.