At first glance, a new cybersecurity law approved by Jordan’s parliament last week appears to be a genuine effort to protect people from online fraud, electronic extortion, and personal data breaches. Amid a six-fold increase in cybercrime between 2013 and 2022, the government says changes are needed to defend against technological advances.
But several articles in the legislation are vague and overly broad, and could be misused to silence and penalize critics, limit already shrinking public freedoms, stifle social media, and undermine access to information.
For starters, the law would make it a crime to criticize government officials on social media platforms and introduce stringent penalties for doing so. Article 15 states that intentionally sharing false information is punishable by up to three months in prison and a fine [of up to 20,000 Jordanian dinars (about $28,000) after parliament’s legal committees slashed it from a proposed 40,000 dinars.
More troubling is a clause that if the alleged crime is directed toward authorities, officials, government institutions and those in public office, the public prosecution can pursue a case without requiring a personal complaint.
Article 17, meanwhile, states that the intentional use of the internet or social media to publish content that stirs unrest, hatred, or disrespects religions may lead to imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to 20,000 dinars.
Human Rights Watch says the “draconian” bill fails to comply with international law and makes it impossible for social media users to regulate their conduct accordingly. Vedant Patel, a top spokesperson for the US State Department, recently noted that the law, with its “vague definitions and concepts, could undermine Jordan’s homegrown economic and political reform efforts and further shrink the civic space that journalists, bloggers, and other members of civil society operate in in Jordan.”
The use of ambiguous wording in Jordanian law is not uncommon and is often used as a tactic by authorities to crack down on dissent and muzzle critics. There are already restrictions on freedom of speech in Jordan’s penal code, the press and publication law, and the counter terrorism law. The cybercrime law would add legal teeth to these already restrictive measures.
“Since parliament is weak and the media is controlled, social media … became a powerful tool for citizens to express their view and share information,” Yahya Shqair, a media expert in Jordan, told me recently. This latest law is simply another tool with which the government can use to “immunize itself from public scrutiny.”
The cybersecurity legislation is just the latest in a long list of moves to undermine free speech online. In December, the government banned TikTok after truck drivers staged a strike against rising fuel prices. Clubhouse, a social audio app, has been blocked since March 2021. Al Hudood, a satirical news website, was blocked in June. The cybercrime bill will now go to the senate for consideration.
Anyone attempting to circumvent the bans with VPNs and proxies face fines of up to 25,000 dinars.
While the government focuses on curbing speech, every day people are simply struggling to make ends meet. Nearly half of Jordanian youth are out of work, and the perception of widespread corruption has eroded public trust in the government. Parliament is largely seen as a malleable rubber-stamp entity.
Calls to revoke the cybersecurity bill persist. Free speech advocates, including lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, and several members of parliament have called for the bill to be shelved. So far, the government has ignored these pleas.
To be sure, cybercrime is surging in Jordan. Last year, 16,000 cybercrime complaints were reported to authorities, with an additional 8,000 recorded in the first half of this year. In 2015, there were just 2,305 cases. But the increased number of cybercrimes shouldn’t be used as an excuse to restrict freedom of expression.
The controversy surrounding the draft bill has exposed the complexities of striking a balance between safeguarding cyber and national security and protecting free speech and human rights. For now, Jordan’s leaders appear to be prioritizing the former at the cost of the latter.
At a time when Jordan is moving ahead to modernize its political system, the cybersecurity law is counterproductive. Its enactment would have grave implications not only for citizens and businesses, but also for Jordan’s reputation, especially in Western countries, whose aid has helped prop up the country’s ailing economy.
If the bill becomes law, it will be a final nail in the coffin of public freedoms. Jordan must move quickly to revoke the bill.
Suha Ma’ayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.