SOPA Arab Style: Jordan Websites Go Dark to Protest Internet Censorship Bill

Hundreds of websites in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan went dark on Wednesday in support of a "SOPA-style" media blackbout campaign. These sites are protesting a piece of draft legislation that threatens to curtail freedom of speech on the internet in the country.

The Jordanian news site Jo24 reported that over 1,000 sites have chosen to participate in the media blackout, signaling their refusal to accept restrictions on internet media freedoms. Those participating in the ban include newspapers, blogs, corporate sites and others, including popular Jordanian sites 7iber, Jo24, BeAmman, and Jordanoholic. The campaign is coordinated by 7oryanet  (a play on words in Arabic meaning both "freedom-net" and "you are free, net"), and those sites participating in the blackout display the following message in both Arabic and English:

"You may be deprived of the content of this site under the amendments of the Jordanian Press and Publications Law and the governmental Internet censorship."

These electronic protests come in response to new amendments to the Press and Publications Law, which impose several restrictions on the owners of websites. The amendments include requiring sites to register with the government and obtain a license, forcing them to monitor comments, and holding them responsible for the content of those comments. Sites would also be required to keep a private record of the comments sent to the site for at least six months. Any content concerning internal Jordanian affairs must be licensed and registered. The law also gives the government the authority to block international websites deemed unsuitable.

Activists decry these amendments as a means for the government to narrow the area of freedom of speech in Jordan, and "restrict the free online space that allows citizens to express themselves and engage in debates on local issues away from the limitations of official and mainstream media." While Jordan is considered the one of the more free Arab countries when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of activity on the internet, Freedom House still gave Jordan the status of  "Not Free" in its Freedom of the Press report. Journalists reportedly face harassment, and bloggers have been arrested for airing views critical of the Jordanian government, and in particular for criticizing the royal family.

One of the main reasons cited for its opposition to the law by 7oryanet and its supporters is the broad and ambiguous nature of the law. The law gives the head of Press and Publications the authority to block any website found to be in violation of the law. It also does not specify the types of websites covered by the restrictions, which could open it up to include any site so desired by the government.

Ghaith Hammouri, founder & CTO at Intryca, Inc., said that the debate over censorship stems from a citizens' movement started in January of last year calling for the ban of all pornography sites in Jordan. This movement included physical protests in the country as well as a Facebook page that has garnered more than 35,000 supporters. Hammouri said that this movement plays into the government's interest to widen its net of censorship. Many activists have noted that a ban on pornography could open the door to other sites being banned as well for arbitrary reasons, and it looks like we are beginning to see the ramifications of such talk.

It remains to be seen what the impact of the protests on the new law will be. Jordanian media activists hope that their actions will have a similar effect to those protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act last January. On January 17, major websites such as Wikipedia and Google blacked out their sites to bring attention to SOPA, which would have allowed the U.S. government to crack down on instances of intellectual property rights infringement, which they believed would have a significant negative impact on freedom of information on the web.

But whatever the outcome, Jordanians are right to be concerned about their freedoms on the Internet. Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern governments have only moved toward more censorship, especially when it comes to cracking down on social media and criticism of government on the net. Jordanians should continue to fight against backsliding into a media darkness not self-imposed, but imposed from above.