Lebanon's parliament must revise repressive tech bill

June 28, 2010 3:03 PM ET

New York, June 28, 2010The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by repressive aspects of a new technology bill that is pending in the Lebanese parliament. CPJ urges parliament to remove several provisions that would restrict press freedom and free expression.

The bill focuses largely on electronic business transactions, including security and contractual issues. The legislation is seen as important among officials and business people who cite a need for Lebanon to adopt generally accepted online business standards. But research by CPJ and other groups shows that the bill includes a number of broadly written provisions that could hinder freedom of expression.

The bill calls for the creation of a regulatory body, the Electronic Signature and Services Authority, or ESSA. Under Article 70, ESSA would not be subject to the checks and balances of other government and judicial institutions, effectively granting the agency unfettered power to monitor or block electronic speech. The bill does not state the circumstances under which ESSA could initiate investigations and actions.

Article 82 would enable ESSA "to carry out financial, administrative, and electronic inspections to access any information or computer systems or tools related to operations, including those used for data processing of private information." Article 84 would grant inspectors unhindered access to “any document, irrespective of its nature, and to generate copies of it.” It also gives the same access to all “software and data.” The bill offers no safeguards against misuse of user information and provides no mechanism for challenging the regulatory agency’s decisions.

Article 92 requires that anyone providing online services obtain a license from ESSA, but an accompanying provision, Article 93, provides only vague criteria for applications. The provision states that licenses would be granted when the "request meets the conditions put by ESSA," which it defines as "principally related” to financial, technology, and security issues. The measure does not provide a mechanism to appeal a rejection.

"Creating a regulatory agency with seemingly unbridled powers is an invitation for abuse," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. "Parliament needs to make fundamental changes to this bill."

Lebanese civil society groups have mounted a campaign opposing the repressive aspects of the bill and calling on members of parliament to revise those provisions. In response, the lower chamber of parliament postponed a vote on the bill that was scheduled for June 15 and have agreed to study the draft for another month.

Mohamed Najem, director of the Social Media Exchange Organization, a Beirut-based organization that specializes in new media training in Lebanon and the Middle East, told CPJ that the bill provides far too much power to the new agency. "We want some kind of supervision over this regulatory body," he said. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The date of the originally scheduled vote has been corrected in the seventh paragraph. 

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