Adel Al-Laqani , Sunday 29 Apr 2012
Blocking adult websites would be costly, only partially successful and set a worrying precedent for internet freedoms, say delegates at a Cairo tech conference; but others believe the social benefits worth the price.
Keep your hands where we can see them: new taste for internet censorship worries some in Egypt (Photo: Reuters)
Blocking pornographic websites will cost Egypt up to LE100 million ($16.5m) to implement and may cause significant slowdown to the country’s internet services, according to telecoms and IT experts.
A Cairo seminar held this weekend saw experts dub any attempt to censor sites “useless”, adding that such a move would only be effective for a few months before more money would have to be spent.
Earlier this year, Islamist members of Egypt’s newly-elected parliament called for measures to block all pornographic websites, citing their allegedly corrosive effect on society and moral values.
The mooted ban was a hot topic at the three-day Cairo ICT technology conference which began on 26 April, and where delegates held sharply divergent views on an initiative that experts estimated would cost the state between LE70 million and LE100 million ($11.6m – $16.5m) to enact.
While some expressed moral approval of a porn crackdown, others worried about freedom of expression, logistics, and the possible effect on Egypt’s burgeoning IT sector.
“If parliamentary legislation is passed to block websites then the decision will also have to detail the means to carry out the blocking,” said Ahmed Helmi, an official at the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA).
Communications expert Nagi Anis warned that blocking sites would cause “significant slow[ing of] internet service” which could hamper Egypt’s future attempts to develop electronic commerce and attract investment.
He pointed out the irony of the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Mohamed Salem, promising a potential quadrupling of internet speeds while others are suggesting a censorious move that would essentially slash transfer rates.
Anis added that all Egypt’s telecoms firms have technical programmes they can use to block internet sites, making the private sector able to bear the financial burden.
As well as the toll on state coffers, Anis also warned of a risk to Egypt’s civil liberties, saying restricting access to pornographic sites could be only the first step in blocking all internet content that certain quarters deem objectionable.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, which have near-complete blocks on pornography, have also effectively banned political websites, he claimed.
Such fears were echoed by Shaarawi Shaarawi, political activist and treasurer of the Egyptian Internet Association, who said blocking adults sites could be a prelude to a crackdown on online political voices and lead to the type of repression witnessed under the Mubarak regime.
Shaarawi also criticised the paucity of internet content for Egyptians, saying only 2 percent of global internet content was in Arabic and new resources are needed to hold local interest and compete against the “rotten content” from abroad.
Less nuanced was the view of Mohamed Amara, professor of jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University and a member of the parliamentary movement calling for the pornography ban on religious grounds.
Stressing that neither he nor Islam was against progress, Amara claimed many people used pornographic sites to the point of addiction, adding that such use could be “more harmful than substance abuse”.
At the same time, however, he seemed to suggest that the state’s blocking of pornography will not completely limit access to such websites.
“I think that if one wants to do something against Islam then they can do it,” Amara said. “[But] our role is to help preserve the Arab and Islamic identity.”