Whenever journalists, investors or ordinary people ask me: why has Jordan been able to shine in the region in the field of technology, web business and web content, one of my standard answers has always been: our relative freedom and our open internet policies.
Over the past decade, Jordan has been steadily building a reputation in the region as the Silicon Valley of Arabia. Scores of web and mobile startups are mushrooming in the country. Social media companies are on the rise. A vibrant social conversation is evolving in the country.
But our free internet way of life, which we have enjoyed since the introduction of the commercial internet in the country since 1995, is now under threat. Real threat.
What started as an effort last year by some citizens, who are driven with a moralistic agenda against pornography, has now been turned into a dangerous government directive, initiated by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology . In recent days, Jordanian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have, in fact, received letters from the Telecommunication Regulation Commission (TRC), which oversees the world of telecoms in the Kingdom, directing them to take measures to ban pornographic websites.
Furthermore, there have been unclear statements by the Ministry that there is work underway with an “Australian company” to work on some system which seems to be aimed at giving the government the ability to ban pornographic sites.
All these statement have not been properly explained and are shrouded in an ambiguous language.
This development is extremely alarming, especially that Jordan’s sensible, open Internet policy has really allowed the country not only to shine as a potential “Silicon Valley” in the Middle East, but also stand out in the field of individual freedoms in a region that is known to be full of “Internet Enemies”. To the north, Syria has alway policed the internet in an aggressive manner, and to the south, Saudi Arabia, is notorious for its banning of not only porn sites, but also other political sites and blogs.
At a time when people in the region are coming out on the streets, demanding more freedoms and refusing to be governed by authoritarian regimes, Jordan should have been a model for the possibility of free, peaceful and civilised dialogue. Even in the days before the democratic opening in 1989 and before the internet, Jordan has always had a relatively liberal attitude to information flow.
Opening the door to a policy of banning sites, based on this or that “moral” agenda is a dangerous precedent. There always have been some voices in Jordan to pressure the government to go toward a “Saudi style” internet. These calls have never been effective as the general government policy was to encourage the spread of internet culture and to adhere to international standard for the free flow of information.
But it is only now that the government has acted, maybe driven by fear of grassroots action or to appease certain political powers in the street. Other observers see this as nothing more that a convenient excuse for the government to crack down on internet media in general. Jordan has hundreds of small news websites, some of which are critical of the government. They could be a target of future bans as well.
The anti-porn campaign has been able to gather around 34,000 supporters since it started in 2011. A couple of dozen of their supporters staged a small demonstration in front of the Ministry of ICT some weeks ago. They have been lobbying the government too, meeting with officials and generally hearing favourable comments on their efforts. The campaign’s agenda (supposedly “protecting the youth from porn”, etc, etc) is an easy way to sign up supporters. Jordan is a relatively conservative country, and some people who have not had the chance to think this issue through, can be easily convinced to “Like” such a campaign’s Facebook page or even sign a petition.
However, it is clear that a large segment of Jordanian society is against introducing internet bans and censorship.
A campaign promoting internet freedoms, advocating the concept of “self protection” and representing a clear stance against government filtering of the net was launched in April this year. This counter campaign has already amassed over 10,000 supporters on Facebook. As the discussion has risen to the level of op-eds in the national press in Jordan, the counter campaign is being acknowledged by writers and opinion leaders.
The discussion on Facebook clearly shows that many Jordanians know that government censorship of the net is bad for the state of freedoms in the country. They also know that such bans are ineffective as a way to “protect” kids.
But the government seems intent on reversing the Kingdom’s liberal internet policies. The Ministry of ICT said that an upcoming telecoms law will contain clause for a “clean internet”. It is the slippery slope toward losing our internet freedom. WHo determines what “clean” means? Parents and individuals at home or Big Brother at a government ministry?