Turning Laws into Data on Arab Digital Rights

Have you ever wondered how many anti-cybercrime laws are in force in Arab countries? What about anti-terror laws? Or how many laws govern free expression online in a given country? Or whether your online privacy is protected? Or if some countries are leading the way with access to information or data protection legislation?

Until earlier this month, it might have taken hours or even days of research to find answers to these questions. Not anymore. On September 1, at a workshop hosted by the Internet Policy Observatory in Istanbul, SMEX launched the first iteration of a one-of-a-kind data visualization of more than 140 legal instruments from 20 countries, including constitutions, laws, and decrees, affecting digital rights in the Arab region.

The dataset provides links to the original documents and to English translations, if they exist, as well as categorizes the laws according to their main purpose or type, such as media and press laws or anti-cybercrime legislation. It is hosted on the data visualization platform Silk.

Data from smex.silk.co

What We Did

The dataset was compiled over the last 12 months by more than a dozen researchers, lawyers, technologists, and volunteers from the countries in question and built on an initial mapping SMEX did in 2013–14. The criteria for selection included:

        • Laws or other instruments, such as constitutions, that establish or limit freedom of expression, freedom to assemble, the right to privacy, the right to access information, press freedom
        • Laws or other instruments, such as penal codes, that criminalize acts of speech, including over electronic channels
        • Laws that regulate the industries that operate electronic communications channels
        • Laws that govern content production and sharing, such as copyright and intellectual property laws
        • Laws that govern electronic commerce, such as e-transaction and e-signature laws
        • Laws that empower state surveillance
      • Laws that have been cited in digital rights–related cases

What’s Next

This dataset is part of a larger initiative that aims to compile multiple datasets on digital rights–related legislation, cases, and campaigns that can be used by researchers, advocates and activists, lawyers and judges, journalists, and policy analysts to illuminate trends in how Arab governments are limiting digital rights, such as free expression and privacy online.

To complement the data, we’ve also released a draft paper on the emerging legal framework for digital rights in the region and shared an earlier experiment with the initial dataset (both can be accessed at smex.silk.co.
This is a work in progress. We encourage you to play with the data and submit feedback.

One suggestion that’s already been made is to include laws related to freedom of assembly, when they specifically mention electronic devices and networks. We also want to know about errors and omissions. An Arabic version is next. We’d love your help.


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