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Egypt To Block Porn Sites… Again

Egypt ranks second in Google’s hit list of sex-related searches among countries worldwide. This includes all sorts of sex-related searches like “animal sex” and “gay porn.” The city of Cairo often ranks first in the world for Google searches of the word “sex”, whereas Egypt as a whole ranks fourth according to Google Trends 2011. This pattern only slightly changes during the holy month of Ramadan.

Noticeably, the Egyptian Arabic Wikipedia contains an impressive list [ar] of porn stars’ bios, with a taxonomy [ar] of actresses sorted by age, director and production.

On Wednesday, November 7, the Egyptian Public Prosecutor decided that online pornography was “inconsistent with Egyptian traditions and values.” He ordered a general ban of all porn sites in Egypt.

Egypt wants to ban porn websites. Image by Ronai Rocha on Flickr, adapted by the author (CC-By 2.0)

Egypt wants to ban porn websites. Image by Ronai Rocha on Flickr, adapted by the author (CC-By 2.0)

Reactions from Egyptians followed immediately, pointing to the fact that the general ban may pave the way for more Internet regulations to come. In a country which is experiencing a continuous growth of Internet users and that has just gone through a “highly-connected” Revolution, curtailing the cyberspace doesn't seem to be an idea people are ready to accept. The shutting down of the Internet following the January 25 Revolution (#Jan25) in 2011, by the Mubarak regime, remains seared into the memory of many, as an unprecedented attempt to crackdown on freedom of expression.

Banning Porn Websites: Act 1

This is, however, not the first attempt to ban porn sites in Egypt: in 2009, a court issued an order banning all porn sites in the country. But what the Islamist lawyer who filed the lawsuit at the time portrayed as a “victory over vice and corruption”, remained a dead-letter. The Ministry of Communications (the authority regulating Egyptian internet providers) never enforced the Court decision.

After the #Jan25 Revolution toppled former Egyptian potentate Hosni Mubarak, a new Islamist-dominated Parliament was elected: the Muslim Brotherhood obtained 46% of the seats and the ultraconservative Salafi party Al-Noor garnered 23%. Shortly after the parliamentarians were sworn in, one Salafi MP took the grounds addressing issues that, he thinks, matter most: he urged a briefing before the People’s Assembly to decide upon a general blocking of porn sites, which he blamed for spreading “evil among different sects of the Egyptian society.” The then-Minister of Telecommunications endorsed the inquiry and formed a commission to work on the technicalities.

This proposition stirred a lively debate within the Parliament. Reactions from Egyptians were mixed but the sword of economics helped pause the whole process. It is estimated that the ban would have cost the Egyptian economy up to USD 16.5 million. Its implementation would have significantly slowed down the country’s internet services. The subsequent hampering of the internet and the resources that a ban would have mobilized scared even those who approved of the measure on moral grounds.

In March this year, however, an administrative court in Cairo revived the matter and eventually issued a verdict ordering the government to ban porn sites. Interestingly enough, more or less at the same time, a Tunisian court threw out a similar suit calling for a ban.

The Egyptian court decision described porn sites as “poisons spreading immorality” and content which is capable of “destroying all religious beliefs, ethics and moral values.” The verdict provoked anxious reactions from human right defenders and secularists. Such a decision, they argued, could open the door to a wide range of websites, deemed “pornographic”, to be banned. Many lamented on the fixation of the new political elite on “meaningless obsessions instead of fixing core problems.”

Others raised concern that the entertainment industry, which the colorful al-Haram street in Cairo is famous for for example, may be next. Remarkably, the Ramadan Eid holiday movie “El Haram Street” made unprecedented profits this year.

“Pure Net”

On November 7, 2012, a protest staged in front of the Public Prosecution office by a crowd of ultraconservative “bearded men and niqabi women” asked for porn sites to be blocked. This was part of a campaign which proponents called “Pure Net” and which aims to ban all porn sites as they “violate Egyptian customs and values.” The Public Prosecutor then sent official letters to the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, the head of the NTRA (National Telecom Regulatory Authority) and the Minister of Interior asking them to enforce the 2009 court decision. The Public Prosecutor motivated his decision [ar] by requiring that all necessary measures are to be taken for “pornographic images or scenes inconsistent with the values and traditions of the Egyptian people and supreme interests of the state.”

The situation thus involves many shades of grey (no BDSM pun intended). If internet providers offer the possibility to subscribe to a “family safe internet,” a government-enforced ban does sound worrying, especially when it is worded along the nebulous lines of  ”the values and traditions of the people” and the “supreme interests of the state.” Moving from blocking naked bodies on the web to taking down opinion pieces online, deemed “politically incorrect” seems to be a much easier step to take for Egyptian legislators today.

Reactions were mixed among public figures. Aly Wanis [Ar], a former Salafi MP, caught in a scandal recently when he was filmed making out with a young girl on a highway, welcomed the ban and said that this was the first step to applying the Sharia’a (Islamic law) in his country. He predicted that opposition will not take place because, he claims, people will be embarrassed to do so.

Amr Badrawi [ar], CEO of the NTRA, said the decision to block porn websites was now enforced. In a public appearance he made on November 7 , however, Badrawi recalled NTRA’s more nuanced position: “Centralized censorship by communications providers is not practical to implement.” Moreover, Badrawi also insisted on the importance of making websites blocking an option citizens can decide on.

Banning Porn Websites: Nothing Easier!

One may not like pornography, but it is important to acknowledge as well that it is difficult to define what constitutes “pornography”. It is even more difficult to require internet service providers to keep lists of pornography content providers. Regardless of the economic laws of supply and demand, there is a very simple straightforward principle that one needs to keep in mind: those who want to watch porn will find a way to watch it! Measures to block access to porn sites within a country have notoriously proven themselves to be inefficient.

If one wants to ban porn in 2012 (soon, 2013), it is better to take into account the experience from other countries who have tried to do so.

Let’s consider Pakistan, for example: the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked 13,000 pornographic websites earlier this year. According to observers, however, there are about 300 millions porn web pages (and counting). They account for about 12% of all online visits and 35% of all downloads. This does not, however, take into account the number of new porn websites that have been created since the Pakistani ruling was enforced. It is easy then to imagine how strenuous it would be for the Pakistan government to block this astronomical amount of pages without severely strangling the internet services in the country.

Needless to address here the use of proxy services which are easily searchable on Google and allow users to circumvent the ban by hiding their IP addresses.

On the technical side of things, legislators and Telecommunications officials can either use brute force to block big chunks of content they don't want their citizens to access: they can block domain names, IP addresses or keywords. But they can also use more subtle technological solutions. One interesting and widely used approach is image detection—a skin-tone detection software like the one a French start-up had developed back in 2000 [fr]. The product boasts to detect not only the amount of presumably nude skin but also the body shapes and positions. The problem is, software from the kind—e.g., PornSweeper,—is notorious for its inefficiency: a detailed review of the then-acclaimed tool detected as pornographic an image of elderly playing guitar in a park, the Mona Lisa and a portrait of… former US President George W. Bush and his wife. Other similarly inefficient solutions are available [zip file] for users to download and install for free.

* *

To prevent its citizens from watching porn online, the Egyptian government could take inspiration from this comment posted in a forum about porn detection means [Fr]:

You may want to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online service providing access to an on-demand, human workforce [to do the detection job instead of computers].

That could be a solution for the Egyptian government, or… an outsourcing to Greece, which suffers from a severe economic crisis at the moment, and may need an original and successful program to create jobs!

 

Thanks to @moftasa and Ramy Raoof for their help in writing an important part of this piece.

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