When the office of Palestinian Authority Attorney General Ahmad Barak began to take steps to address cybercrimes in Palestine, little was thought of the implications and the surrounding political realities. As early as 2006, a small-scale cybercrime unit was established by the Palestinian Authority at the office of the Public Prosecutor, and in 2014, a similar unit was added to the Palestinian Authority police department. With these two units in place, Barak inaugurated a Cybercrime Task Force in 2016, which was tasked with handling reports of cybercrimes and analyzing digital evidence. By 2017, the task force trained nearly 170 members to deal with e-crimes, many of whom now work at various police departments around the West Bank.
While the law is intended to counter a significant increase in e-crimes, which rose from 502 in 2015 to 1,200 in 2016 according to Palestinian police spokesman Louay Azriqat, the expansive and chilling language of the legislation prompted local rights groups to demand amendments, not least because Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas signed the law on June 24, 2017, in near secrecy, out of sight from the public without transparency or debate. Neither civil society nor rights groups had a say in the language of the law.
Although the 61 Articles comprising the law mostly deal with serious e-crimes, which include defamation, extortion, e-viruses, fraud and electronic spying among others, three Articles drew the ire of rights groups because they fear these provisions would impact freedom of expression and online privacy:
Article 32 mandates internet service providers to cooperate with security agencies by collecting, storing, and sharing users’ information data for at least three years, in addition to blocking any website on the orders of the judiciary.
Article 40 allows the Attorney General or one of his assistants to request the court to issue an order to block any website within 24 hours.
Article 51 of the law states that, “If a crime is committed online and harms ‘national unity’ or ‘social harmony,’ it will be punishable” by hard labor, ranging between three and 15 years, a sentence impacting all those who partook in the crime.
In practical terms, these provisions point to what journalists, rights groups, and activists believe is a targeted effort against their work, especially in criticizing security coordination with Israel, the ongoing political divisions between Fateh and Hamas, and repression by security forces. Journalists expressed concerns that the notions of ‘national unity’ and ‘social harmony’ would be used by Abbas as pretexts to preserve his tight grip on power, which he has substantially consolidated in recent years. Jihad Barakat, a journalist who was recently arrested by the Palestinian Authority and later released following pressure by rights groups, said “this is a dangerous law,” insisting that it “should conform to public freedoms and not be used to curb them.”
In June alone, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) reported that the number of violations by Palestinian authorities against media freedoms in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank exceeded those committed by the Israeli occupation, with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority committing 41 out of 51 recorded violations. Most notably, in mid-June, the Palestinian Authority public prosecutor issued orders to block 29 news websites thought to be affiliated with Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’ archrival, a decision now buttressed by Articles 32 and 40 of the new law.
Ordinary citizens are at risk too. On June 8, 2017, Palestinian security personnel arrested a young Palestinian, Nassar Jaradat, for criticizing Jibril Rajoub, a government official, on Facebook. Shortly after Jaradat posted a status update expressing disagreement with statements Rajoub made on Israeli television, members of the Palestinian Preventive Security appeared at his Ramallah home and detained him. In another instance, social media satirist Ali Qaraqe, was compelled to flee to Turkey where he now resides after being repeatedly summoned and harassed by security forces for his scathing commentary on the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians abroad stand a similar risk of oppression and detention. While the law does not outline a clear mechanism of enforcement, Article 2 clearly states that the provisions of the law are applicable to Palestinians who reside outside Palestine. It is conceivable that Palestinians who express criticisms of the Palestinian Authority while abroad would be questioned upon their return.
The law also stipulates in Articles 43 and 44 that Palestinian cybercrime agencies work with their counterparts in other countries in investigating transnational cases and extraditing individuals who violate the provisions of the law. A common Israeli charge against Palestinians is online incitement. It is possible that Israeli authorities would point to this legislation to silence Palestinian voices critical of Israeli occupation and policies.
Last month, Barak attended a roundtable at MADA and said he is “against the arrest of any journalist on the grounds of freedom of expression issues.” However, representatives of rights groups expressed their anger at the way the law was adopted, and insisted that it be suspended until the necessary amendments are made.
It is likely the conversation about this law will continue, though it is not clear whether the Palestinian Authority will embrace the demands of civil society. One thing, however, is crystal clear: the current version of the law is another attempt by the Palestinian Authority at consolidating its police state.