How the government in Sudan legitimized internet classification and content filtering

Photo courtesy Ameya Nagarajan

The internet has been shut down several times in Sudan since 2018 in the wake of the revolution. Social media shutdowns have also become common since the government banned YouTube during the 2010 elections after uploading a video showing election fraud there. Sudanese authorities have blocked access to several social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram to prevent people from sharing information about protests that culminated in the ouster of former President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The authorities have not provided a reason for the social media shutdown.

Most internet cuts in Sudan involve turning off mobile data. During lockdowns, people can access the internet through fixed line internet connections, which is rare except between businesses. Even after the internet was restored in July 2019 and November 2021, social media platforms were not accessible and people had to use VPNs to access them.

Usually, citizens have no warning about the upcoming shutdown. One minute their mobile data works, the next minute it disappears. The government has She announced her intention to shut down the Internet It has only happened twice in the past two years, both times during high school exams. Telecom companies sent SMS To subscribers:

“At the direction of the judicial authorities, the internet will be cut daily during the Sudanese certificate exam sessions from 8 am until the end of the session at 11 am.”

The letter did not specify the law under which the authorities took this decision.

Internet cuts and internet disruptions are not unusual in Sudan. The government shut down mobile data several times in 2020 and 2021 during tribal conflicts, high school exams and the October 25, 2021 coup led by Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant-General Burhan. The law is a key tool to enable these closures as the government relies on the Armed Forces Act, the Public Safety Act and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TPRA) Act to give them this authority.

However, Sudan has regulations to protect access to web content. One regulation was issued by TPRA in 2020 and ratified by Sovereign Council member Major General Ibrahim Jaber because the communications sector at that time was under the umbrella of the army. Jaber is also the Chairman of the Sudatel Group, the national telecommunications operator that also operates in countries other than Sudan, such as Mauritania and Senegal.

The regulation is called the “Regulation 2020 on Content Filtering and Blocking of Websites on the Internet. Issued pursuant to Section 88(1) of the TPRA Act of 2018 which enables the TPRA Board to make regulations to implement the Act. The regulation obligated TPRA to give carriers a list of blocking and filtering URLs, and a “daily monitoring” of filtering equipment to check it is up to date.

The regulation required ISPs and operators to provide an “immediate response” to block requests from TPRA and ignore requests from any other entity without a court order. Thus, the authority gave itself the right to block websites without a court order while asking others to go to court. Also, the regulation obligated ISPs and telecom companies to give them access to a graphical user interface (GUI) for filtering systems, and to provide statistics and periodic reports about filtered websites and pages.

Ambiguous terms such as “belief” were used to justify this ban. Article 14 of the Web Content Filtering and Blocking Regulation said: “Telecom companies are obligated to provide the necessary technical systems to protect their networks and services from use contrary to public beliefs and morals, while adhering to the controls, procedures and requirements for filtering and blocking determined by the authority.” The regulation did not specify the “creed”: is it the Islamic belief or is it linked to another religion or belief?

The regulation classified blocking and liquidation lists into two types: local and commercial. The commercial list was defined as: “The list of classifications that fall within the filtering and blocking systems from the system resource, which contains the international classifications of the filter lists,” while the local list was defined as: “An internal list prepared by the Authority. By adding the sites classified by the Authority or that Users receive it after reviewing it and making sure that it contains prohibited substances.

The trade list contains 13 “selected to block” categories. These categories include websites related to drugs and alcohol, tobacco websites, child pornography, weapons making, malware, and spam. The list also contains vague categories such as “sites that insult religion and advocate atheism,” which refuse to respect freedom of belief by classifying atheism as an untouchable activity.

The list, surprisingly, classifies VPN sites as not allowed. It also blocks Peer-to-Peer sites like BitTorrent. These two categories can be considered indicators of the authorities’ intent to monitor users’ online behaviour.

The regulation gave the authorities the right to freely add new categories, by naming the last category in the trade list as “any other category classified by the authority,” which opened up a lot of space to block any legal access to web content.

Sudan has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Sudan is also a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and has ratified the law guaranteeing the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to receive information.

Despite this ratification, Sudanese domestic law does not match international standards and does not guarantee the digital rights of its citizens.

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