Egyptian Internet cafe policy - censorship in disguise?

Is requiring the full name, email address and and phone number of Internet cafe users a step too far for Egyptians?

Late last week it was reported that a number of Egyptian Internet cafes had been directed by the Egyptian government to collect personal information from prospective Internet users before they would be entitled to access the Internet at the cafe. This information included names, email addresses and phone numbers. Following submission of this information, an access code would be sent to the supplied mobile number then allowing them access to the Internet.

According to the official in the AFP article, while it isn't an official policy of the Egyptian government, it has been implemented at a number of Internet cafes at the behest of the government.

Given Egypt's historical crackdowns on bloggers and other online activists, including claims of arbitrary imprisonment and torture, there are some who are concerned that this recent step may be heading along the path of providing a simple means of identifying otherwise anonymous online critics of the Egyptian government.

Overall, the measure doesn't seem too strict on privacy or security obligations, but it does represent a boiling frog type situation, whereby continual small restrictions on online activity and privacy will eventually lead to an environment which is successfully censoring and limiting the online freedom of users without their complaint.

Even though this report was published at the end of last week, it isn't the first time that claims such as this have been made about similar activities at Egyptian Internet cafes.

With the increasing level of Internet access being rolled out to the wider Egyptian population in recent years, including a range of government sponsored initiatives to reach segments of the population that probably wouldn't normally get access to the Internet, it seems odd that this initiative is being described as a means to crack down on Egyptian Internet users.

Just how difficult do you think it is for your ISP to track down exactly who you are based on your online activity?

There have been cases where computers in common areas, such as libraries, have been taken away as part of criminal investigations, so it shouldn't be any surprise to anyone that ISPs and law enforcement agencies would have an interest in at least having the ability to track down a user as part of an official investigation.

It is the unofficial investigations and abuse of information access that concern observers the most. Not just in Egypt, but worldwide.

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Carl Jongsma

Computerworld
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