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Lebanon Blocks Six Porn Sites, Sparks Fears of Further Censorship

"We will censor it" by Clouds Master via deviantART, licensed for reuse.

“We will censor it” by Clouds Master via deviantART, licensed for reuse.

Mohamad Najem contributed research to this post.

Lebanon's Minister of Telecommunications has ordered Internet service providers to block six pornographic websites, according to a post by blogger Ralph Aoun who shared a leaked copy of the communiqué on his blog on Sept. 1, 2014. There is limited precedent for this type of web filtering in Lebanon, apart from the blocking of a local online gambling site last January.

The order was issued to Ogero, Lebanon's state-run telecommunications service provider, which then conveyed the order to other, smaller providers around the country.

Writing at Blog of The Boss, Ralph Aoun warned that this could lead the government down a slippery slope to greater censorship:

(…) we cast a skeptical eye at such decisions as what started as blocking gambling sites [has] already led to filtering adult content….if we look further down this slippery slope, we might end up filtering blogs, news, religion, comedy and maybe one day even social media…

The distribution and production of pornography is illegal under Lebanese law, but the policies governing these activities were written long before the era of the Internet. In the past, police occasionally would raid adult video shops to confiscate pornographic materials and the like, but the law was never strictly applied. Likely due to changing social norms and easier access to porn online, the law has never been applied in the online space, until now.

Despite the fact that there are legal grounds for the sites to be filtered, many Internet users see the blocking as an attack on freedom of expression and are deeply troubled about the lack of transparency around the decision to block the sites.

In response to a tweet from Social Media Exchange director and Global Voices community member Mohamad Najem, Walid Karam, an advisor to the Ministry of Telecommunications, explained that the decision came from the Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Telecommunications does not censor websites. It protects freedom. The decision came from the Public Prosecution and the Ministry. [We do] not know the facts behind the decision.

On the Social Media Exchange blog, Najem pointed to the risks incurred by Lebanon's lack of a legal framework for such a decision. He added that state-run Ogero offers technical filtering options geared towards parents who wish to block certain websites in their own households.

ليس واضحاً بعد ما هي المادة القانونية و/او آلية إتخاذ القرار في هذا الحجب، مما يدل على خطورة هكذا قرارات و عدم شرعيتها لو تم التأكد من حصولها.
تقدم أوجيرو خدمة الرقابة المنزلية، مما يعطي حق لرب المنزل بحجب المواقع الإباحية عن منزله فقط، و هو شيئ إيجابي، و يعطي الحرية للأفراد بإتخاذ القرار الذي يناسبهم. كما نلفت ان الحجب من دون أي مسوغ قانوني واضح يفتح الأبواب أمام حجب المواقع السياسية، الدينية، الخ، بإستخدام حجج واهية مما يؤثر سلباً على حرية التعبير.

The law and/or decision-making mechanism behind the ban is unclear. This indicates the danger behind such decisions and its lack of legitimacy if the information is verified.

Ogero provides a service that allows the heads of households to block pornographic content in their homes, and that is a positive thing, as it gives individuals the right to make the decision that suits them. Blocking websites without a legal justification opens the door to the ban of political websites, religious ones…etc, using flimsy arguments which have a negative effect on freedom of expression.

As the websites listed in the document advertise “teen porn”, some Twitter users following the issue questioned whether or not they contained images showing sexual abuse of minors — in this case, the content would be illegal under local law and international standards. Blogger @LebaneseVoices tweeted a screenshot of the clearance and warning messages on one of the websites, specifically stating that the actors and models in the videos are over 18.

It seems that the websites do indeed feature adult actors. In an update, SMEX added that according to news website Elnashra Finance.com, a Lebanese man accused of sexually harassing minors said he watched videos on these 6 websites. This is what reportedly prompted a judge to issue the order. If that is the case, then the seemingly arbitrary ban, outside any transparent policy-enforcement mechanism, could cast a long shadow on the exercise of free expression in Lebanon.

On another note, in a post titled “Lebanon Banning Websites Using Fax Machines,” Mustafa Hamoui highlights the Ministry's apparently “primitive” and limited means of censorship:

Think of how absurd this is: A fax machine request to ban a list of websites. Forget about how this list will go viral and how everyone will now know about these websites (regardless, I’m not contributing to this so I’m redacting them here), this is a technologically primitive way to ban websites.

Blacklisting (hard coding a list of websites that should be banned) only worked when the web was so small we had actual lists of websites (Think Yahoo! Directory). But in today’s age of apps, social media and data streams, you need hugely sophisticated algorithms, big CPU power and large bureaucracies to analyze keywords, patterns and natural language, only to achieve a partial ban on information (the hackers will always find a way). What the leaked document tells us is that our cyber crime fighters only have bicycles but they’re trying to catch criminals with cars and planes and spaceships.

Much of current law in Lebanon dates back to the era of the Ottoman empire, when social norms were more conservative, and access to information and interaction among citizens was limited to traditional mediums that followed specific legal frameworks. In the digital era, the information environment and media ecology have changed drastically, as has the collective mindset of citizens concerning issues such as these. Lebanon needs new, more flexible legal frameworks that can be adaptable to evolving communications technologies and grounded in the interests of citizens’ rights to free expression and access to information.

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