Cybercrime chaos in Jordan

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Jordan’s new cybercrime bill was released last week. The new bill caused much controversy. Human rights monitors, political parties, trade unions, and journalists all denounced it. اضافة اعلان

The government was on the defensive with several key government figures giving interviews and statements justifying the law as a necessity for social protections and safeguarding Jordan from foreign malign campaigns

The rise of AI and social media influence pushes governments, like Jordan, to centralize power to control these forces.

Sometimes, it is for valid national security and social protection reasons. However, global practice and research suggest that decentralization offers greater flexibility and effectiveness in combating, regulating and helping safeguard communities, not centralization. The topic is complex enough that the debate is unclear.
Clear definitions ease moderation, prosecution, and defense, providing stability. Unclear definitions of misinformation, hate speech or divisive speech - especially when the hope for increasing political engagement under the recent political party renewals, is a recipe for disaster and confusion
The law aims to address child protection, reduce online harm, and protect data systems. But it also raises concerns on privacy, freedom of speech, and political comments.

Three things you should know:
1. History of Decentralization in Jordan:One of the earliest attempts at decentralization in Jordan was the 1952 Decentralization Law, which established a system of local councils in different parts of the country. However, this law did not grant significant autonomy to these councils, since they remained largely dependent on the central government for funding and decision-making. Tweaks were made to the local administration system in 2001, but without a push towards empowering municipal governments.

Skipping to 2015, Law No. 49 promoted decentralization with elected governorate and municipal councils. In 2017, decentralization came into effect with the local elections, launching the governorate councils, and local councils - a neighborhood level council under the municipal council. By 2021, Jordan had already undergone changes that abolished the local councils, redesigned the governorate councils, reduced the number of elected seats, and made mayors more dependent on centralized authorities.  

Transferring real power and resources to local authorities in Jordan has been very gradual, with Amman retaining control over major policies, budgeting, financing, and decision-making. The majority of decision-making remains centralized and away from citizens’ influence or awareness. This has been a missed opportunity, on a number of fronts.

2.  Why a Decentralized Approach Works Local governments worldwide employ various best practices to combat misinformation and disinformation on social media. These practices include promoting media literacy, collaborating with fact-checking organizations, establishing rapid response mechanisms, running public awareness campaigns, engaging with social media platforms, building partnerships with online platforms, creating local information hubs, engaging with local communities, encouraging responsible social media use, and considering legislative measures.

Combating misinformation requires a multi-partner approach involving governments, social media platforms, fact-checking organizations, educational institutions, and citizens themselves. Collaboration, education, and a commitment to promoting accurate information are key elements in the fight against disinformation and misinformation.

A multi-partner approach is only effective at the local level. National institutions are already too far removed from the context and players, and can get bogged down in cases if burdened with cybercrimes for the entire nation. A recent paper by the Aspen Institute provides several decentralized tools for combating cybercrimes and misinformation, including civic education, investing in local media, local transparency, and building citizen trust in elections.

False information increases risks to citizens - especially in an emergency. In an election or during a political crisis, it increases risk to the state and state stability. The diffusion of false information is strongly affected by the lack of timely and verifiable information, from governments. Several EU states have focused on decentralized approaches such as Norway and Finland

Estonia remains the gold standard for its innovative measures to enhance cybersecurity and combat cybercrimes, by maintaining a centralized Cyber Security Council, (a high-level advisory body chaired by the Prime Minister) while decentralizing the responses across different government agencies. However, Estonia has a decentralized approach to governance in general with a focus on individual liberties and a free market. Lithuania's approach to cybersecurity involves coordination between various government agencies through the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) working closely with the private sector, and international partners to combat cyber threats. (Both states, however, also get cybersecurity support through NATO).

Canada has a decentralized approach to addressing cybercrimes, with law enforcement agencies at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels working together on cybercrime investigations. The UK has a multi-agency approach to tackling cybercrime, involving organizations such as the National Crime Agency (NCA), Metropolitan Police Cyber Crime Unit, and other regional police forces. Australia had a decentralized approach to combating cybercrimes, with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and state police agencies coordinating efforts to address cyber threats. 

Germany had a decentralized approach to combating cybercrimes, with various law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and State Criminal Police Offices (LKA). The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee ( plays a crucial role involving government representatives, civil society, and the private sector. Both Germany and Brazil give the judiciary more control over local issues, letting courts decide issues in their jurisdiction.

3. The new bill and its implications: 
The new law focuses on regulating various activities related to the use of information systems, information networks, and information technology in the Kingdom. It addresses offenses such as unauthorized access to information systems, creating fake websites or accounts, committing crimes using electronic means, intercepting data transmission, sexual exploitation and pornography, defamation and dissemination of false news, invasion of privacy, promotion of violence and hatred, and other related offenses. 

In many areas the law focuses on citizen protection and limiting online harm. But there are also some worrisome areas, not for what they say but what they don’t say. Vague areas in laws allow unpredictable use, and unpredictability increases citizen distrust and anxiety. 

Some provisions of the law, such as those related to defamation, dissemination of false news, and undermining national unity, might raise concerns about potential restrictions on freedom of expression and speech. There is an expansive definition of what is criminal behavior online. Finally there are some harsh penalties - which includes imprisonment - and are much stricter than international practice. Also, the law would allow for wide interception and capture of data transmission raising concerns about citizen privacy and due process rights. However, violating another citizen’s privacy is mentioned as a crime - including sharing private images taken of them. 

The law blends several cyber threats together and some which don’t fit - like defamation. It is important to remember that this law is occurring in parallel with political modernization - which actually encourages more political engagement and discussion.

My Take: Most Jordanians define democracy as primarily freedom of speech (then followed by a social safety net provided by the state). This makes any change to online regulation sensitive - especially since the majority of Jordanians under 56 get their news from social media. However, the threats are real, and even more so with AI advances. It is not just cybercrimes that threatened hacking, but also blackmail, hate speech, fake news, and misinformation. 

The question is how to balance freedoms with the need for security and how to battle these threats effectively. The answer to the first is clarity - clear definitions so that the public understands the red lines. Clear definitions ease moderation, prosecution, and defense, providing stability. Unclear definitions of misinformation, hate speech or divisive speech - especially when the hope for increasing  political engagement under the recent political party renewals, is a recipe for disaster and confusion. 

The answer to the second is decentralization. Decentralized approaches work globally for combating extremism, decentralized approaches work in battling COVID-19, and decentralized approaches work globally in fighting cybercrime. Decentralization is not just about democracy or increasing citizen influence - it is about efficiency. Local leadership knows more about their communities than centralized bureaucracies. They just need the resources, training, and staff to get the job done. As globalization shifts from the idea of liberal capitalism to increasing global threats (besides extremism, pandemics, and cybercrimes there are also traditional criminal networks, climate change crises, human trafficking and many other threats).  Ironically the solutions have to be local.

A multi-partner approach is vital. First, citizens have to be a part of the solution (and not the victim of it). Civil society can be a partner in civic education, the Ministry of Education will need to provide Universities with media literacy curriculum, (In the US the state of Washington introduced a bill in 2019 to implement media literacy education in schools.) and local governments can provide civic education through public meetings and messages (just like they did with public health messaging early in the pandemic). In the state of Vermont, also in the US, the Front Porch initiative uses community meetings and town halls - offline - to discuss events online. Several local governments in the United States have initiated media literacy programs in schools and communities to educate citizens about identifying and combating fake news. This can even be done by professional associations - starting this month New York requires lawyers to take a course on media literacy as a part of renewing their law license. 
In many areas the law focuses on citizen protection and limiting online harm. But there are also some worrisome areas, not for what they say but what they don’t say. Vague areas in laws allow unpredictable use, and unpredictability increases citizen distrust and anxiety.
However, with this new cybercrime law, civil society, media, professional associations, trade unions, and political parties should be partners, but instead they’re protesting because they feel they are the target. The concern here isn’t negative criticism but the loss of a valuable partnership. By including their concerns, and including their resources, the efforts can be multiplied.

There are a lot of issues with fact-checking, which is often too little, too late. Pre-bunking is more effective. But there are times where false information must be corrected so that accurate information is safeguarded.  Singapore launched the "Factually" website, which is managed by the government's Public Communications Division. The website serves as a dedicated platform to debunk misinformation and provide factual information on various issues. It addresses myths and false claims, offering credible sources to back up its statements. Brazil's fact-checking organization, Agência Lupa, took a more decentralized approach by collaborating with local governments to debunk false claims during elections and major events. South Korea established the "Fact-checking Center" in 2017, a government-led initiative to counter fake news during elections, which cooperated with journalists and civil society. Jordan should consider civic education and pre-bunking but also a trained and funded fact checking body.

Finally, a cybercrime law should fit under an overarching Cyber Security Strategy which brings together multiple partners. We need to integrate citizens, civil society, and journalists into the battle against cyber crimes and connect them with local governments instead of leaving them out of the conversation, making them view themselves as the target of such harsh penalties.

This article was originally published on the SubStack Full Spectrum Jordan.

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