Censorship of social media in Qatar

Note: I live in Qatar since 2012, working for a local research institution as a computer scientist specialized in social media. As everything in this blog, my personal opinions do not reflect the position of the institutions I'm part of.

Despite widespread criticism, Qatar authorities have promulgated a new "Cybercrime Prevention Law". The law basically addresses three very distinct topics. The first topic (Chapter 1) is related to unauthorized access to computer systems, stealing or deletion of data, electronic fraud, etc. which together conform what is usually considered "cybercrime," i.e. crimes that involve a computer or network.

There is, however, a second topic (Chapter 2) that is not cybercrime but what the law refers to as "Content Crimes". Content crimes include helping terrorist organizations or disseminating child porn, both punished with up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to 140K USD (500KQAR). It also includes electronic forgery and blackmail.

Prison for "false news" or violating "social values" online

Between the articles about terrorism and the ones about child pornography there is a vague provision regarding "false news" that basically extinguish freedom of press in Qatar, which is guaranteed in article 48 of its Constitution:

Article 6.- A sentence of not more than three years and a fine of not more than QR500,000 (~140K USD), or either of these penalties, shall be imposed on any person who through an information network or an information technology technique sets up or runs a website to publish false news to threaten the safety and security of the State or its public order or domestic and foreign security. A sentence of not more than a year in a prison and a fine of not more than QR250,000, or either of these penalties, shall be imposed on any person who promotes, disseminates or publishes in any way such false news for the same purpose.

Next, between the article about child pornography and the one about blackmail, there is an article that ends freedom of expression in Qatar, which is guaranteed in article 47 of its Constitution (emphasis added):

Article 8.- A sentence of not more than three years in prison and a fine of not more than QR100,000 (~27K USD), or either of these penalties, shall be imposed on any person who, through an information network or information technology technique, violates social values or principles, publishes news, photos or video or audio recordings related to the sanctity of people’s private or family life, even if the same is true, or insults or slanders others.

Additionally a third major topic (Chapter 5) establishes a maximalist view of intellectual property, in which copyright infringement is punished with up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to QR500,000 (~140K USD). This is approximately the fine that the US law provides, which is one of the largest in the world (up to 150K USD per infraction), with the addition of jail time. Copyright law has been repeatedly used in the past in several countries to censor expression; for instance reproducing a past speech of someone without his/her authorization has been construed as a copyright violation.

What does it mean?

Personally, I find this extremely disheartening and a tremendous setback for a country that in many fronts is progressing.

The opinions of anybody are likely to challenge, in some way or another, the values or principles of somebody else.

As an atheist who believes in the separation of church and state, a vegan who abhors animal sacrifices including religious ones, a pro-LGBT right that considers inhumane the laws that punish homosexuality, a person who is pro-legalization of drugs for adults, that defends freedom of expressions and a sharing economy of knowledge, etc. I feel that most of my opinions (and those of anyone except drones!) challenge in some way the values or principles or other people. To me, challenging other people's views is part of cosmopolitanism; the opposite (ignoring each other's positions completely) has nothing to do with living together.

As a scientist who has researched extensively in social media credibility, I have to say that false news and rumors are inevitable in social media (and of media in general), particularly in times of crises. At the same time, there are mechanisms that correct false rumors in the sense that in a typical crisis misinformation is actually hard to find! Most people broadcast information that ends up being erroneous moved by a desire to help. Discouraging people from posting information in social media unless it is verified is dangerous: it creates a blind spot in the awareness that we can get from it during a crisis situation.

Finally, and here I echo what Amnesty International has said on the matter, a key issue is vagueness. The law defines "user", "provider", "network", etc. but does not define false news or what are the social values that people are not supposed to challenge through social media. In that sense, this law has an incredible potential for abuse and will have a chilling effect on the development of information technologies in Qatar.

See: unofficial translation to English [PDF] of the law promulgated on September 15th, 2014. Twitter bird and scissor: Carlos Latuff.