Dependent Yet Disenfranchised: The Policy Void That Threatens the Rights of Mobile Users in Arab States

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In the context of growing government control of mobile networks and a lack of transparency by both governments and companies in making these controls visible, this report, “Dependent Yet Disenfranchised: The Policy Void that Threatens the Rights of Mobile Users in Arab States” seeks to document the public disclosure of key policies by all mobile operators in the 22 countries of the Arab region, specifically terms of service and privacy policies. In addition, we aim to assess the extent to which those disclosures address the right to free expression, and to a lesser extent the right to privacy, using a selection of indicators from the RDR/CAI methodology.

Our objective is to provide evidence to inform the efforts of corporate and government policymakers, journalists, activists, and researchers. Most important, we aim to foster increased transparency between mobile operators and their users in order to develop a business culture in which customers’ demands for their rights to privacy and free expression are powerful enough to persuade technology and telecom service providers to: first publish and publicize rights-respecting corporate policies; second, differentiate themselves from competitors based on these policies; and, third, defend mobile users in the region from government and corporate overreach.

No mobile telecom operator in the Arab region, even subsidiaries of multinationals, appears to consider, much less commit to respect, human rights online in the formulation of their terms of service and privacy policies. Many do not even make these core policy documents publicly available.

Of the region’s 66 mobile telecom operators, for instance, only 14 publish terms of service; just 7 publish privacy policies. Among the companies that do publish ToS, some do not publish them in the primary languages of their users. Moreover, there is little consistency among companies in their commitments to notify users of changes in service or to make clear the processes used to enforce their ToS. In fact, while most companies provide information on the types of content and activities they do not allow, it remains unclear which procedures they follow to enforce their rules. This includes providing information on which actions they take against infringing users and accounts such as decisions to suspend or terminate a service; or to restrict access to certain types of content, and how such decisions are made.

While most operators provide some means for customers to submit complaints, no existing remedy mechanism includes either a process for addressing grievances related to freedom of expression or evidence that the company is responding to complaints. Finally, not one Arab-country operator publishes a transparency report (some are prevented from doing so by law).

Despite these shortcomings, there are bright spots. Four companies — LycaMobile Tunisia, Virgin Mobile KSA, Vodafone Qatar, and Zain Jordan — publish both a ToS and a privacy policy. Du, in the UAE, emerged as a relative leader in informing and educating its users regarding processes for enforcing its policies. Subsidiaries of MTN, Orange, and Vodafone — multinational operators based outside the region — received partial credit for human rights commitments, thanks to the leadership of their parent companies. Still, there is vast room for improvement.

By documenting these shortcomings and glimmers of potential across the region and making them visible to both the companies and their users, we want to spur operators to move in the right direction. We have included juxtaposition with multinational and RDR/CAI-ranked companies to illustrate trends at the global level that might aid this push. Additionally, because this is the first analysis of its kind and incorporated only four indicators and also because our intent is to encourage not shame the companies evaluated, we chose not to assimilate the data collected into a numerical ranking or score, as the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index does. In future evaluations, however, we may reconsider this approach.

Further, we hope that Arab region–based free expression, digital rights, and consumer rights groups will use the data provided herein to advocate not only for making terms of service and privacy policies publicly available at the operator level but also for the inclusion of language that ensures respect for users’ rights in line with international business and human rights standards. To our knowledge, this report is a unique source of such data and sets a baseline of knowledge that can support demands for a more rights-respecting business environment generally and in digitally networked spaces, in particular. This is especially urgent, since in recent years, these spaces have become the primary locales of both our private and public discourse and must be protected as such.

Finally, we offer recommendations to operators on how to incorporate these standards, and to consumer and human rights advocates on what they should consider and demand as rights-respecting behavior.

In November 2017, Afef Abrougui, the author of this report and a researcher with Global Voices; Rebecca MacKinnon, director of Ranking Digital Rights; and Jessica Dheere, executive director of SMEX, discussed the findings of the report at the SMEX office in Beirut. Here’s the video.

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