Egypt plans new controls on social media

Facebook and other social media have been vital resources for Egyptian activists - and targets for successive governments.

Story highlights

  • Egyptian MP proposes mandatory registration for social media users
  • Prison sentences and fines for unauthorized use
  • Critics cite increased surveillance and technical hurdles

(CNN)The Egyptian government is considering radical new proposals to restrict citizens' access to social media.

A draft bill circulated in Egyptian newspapers would require users to register with the government to access sites including Twitter and Facebook. Successful applicants would receive a login linked to their national ID. Unauthorized use could result in prison sentences and heavy fines.
    The draft was authored by MP Reyad Abdel Sattar of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, the largest party in parliament with 65 of 596 seats. He told the Egypt Independent it would: "facilitate state surveillance over social networks in Egypt by making users enroll in a government-run electronic system that will grant them permission to access Facebook."
    Sattar said the reforms were necessary to combat terrorism and incitement against the state. He claims to have the support of 60 fellow MPs as the bill goes to parliamentary committees for review.
    The Egyptian parliament is considering new social media restrictions.

    Chilling effect

    Civil society groups are alarmed by the implications of the proposed law.
    "This will have a big impact by controlling what people say and don't say," says Wafa-Ben Hassine of digital rights group Access Now. "Government issued IDs are linked to a plethora of activities including driving, banking, and medical services so the government will have much more information about users' whereabouts."
    The April 6 Youth Movement denounced the proposal in a scathing Facebook post:
    "Unfortunately these ideas are outdated...The whole world has gone beyond the idea of banning the Internet."
    MP Abdel Sattar did not respond to a CNN request for comment. An official from the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said the department was not involved with Sattar's plans.
    Civil society groups say activists face growing repression in Egypt.

    Technical hurdles

    Even if the bill becomes law, it could be derailed by technical challenges.
    Implementing and policing a firewall around the Facebook domain would be resource-intensive. Technically proficient users could likely still bypass security to access the site.
    The scale of the registration operation would also be a huge challenge for the government.
    "One-third of Egyptians use Facebook so about 30 million people would be submitting requests for permission," says Wafa Ben-Hassine of digital rights group Access Now. "I doubt the Egyptian government has the capacity to do that. The sheer bureaucratic weight of the initiative is not feasible."
    The plan would also require the cooperation of social networks. A spokesperson for Facebook would not comment.
    Facebook is the most popular social platform in Egypt with over 30 million active accounts.

    Troubled history

    This initiative represents the latest attempt to crack down on social media in Egypt since the 2011 revolution.
    The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak was dubbed the "Facebook revolution" due to organizers' use of the social network. Twitter and Facebook were shut down during the uprising.
    But regimes that held power after Mubarak have also targeted social media, citing security concerns.
    President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government has taken steps to increase surveillance of the main networking sites, a move that has been criticized by Amnesty International.
    Social media users have reportedly been arrested for their posts under the Sisi regime, according to Human Rights Watch, and hundreds of pages have been taken down. The government has also blocked Facebook's Free Basics Internet service for low-income users, according to Reuters.
    For Egypt's social surfers, the picture could get bleaker still.