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Without civil society voice, Jordan Vision missing key stakeholders

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.
Jordanians were genuinely excited as they observed the launch ceremony of the Economic Modernization Vision for the next 10 years on Monday. Raining on the event’s parade was definitely on nobody’s mind. People were reading the details of the vision on the new website (jordanvision.jo) with the express intent of jumping on the bandwagon of positive change.اضافة اعلان

But 15 minutes later, the absence of a certain civil society organization from discussions about the country’s digital transformation became apparent and had skewed the event’s proposals away from the Jordanian people’s right to privacy, with zero mention of the need to protect their personal information.

The Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), which is the only civil society body in Jordan with the know-how of connectivity to international expertise and thought leadership to protect the digital rights of Jordanians, was left out of the event and, consequently, its proposed roadmap. As it happens, JOSA is a founding member of the Arab Alliance for Digital Rights and has strategic relations with some of the world’s top privacy organizations.

In effect, heavy-handed tech proposals were sprinkled across almost every one of the 12 sectoral papers emanating from the event’s working groups, bringing together over 500 participants from inside and outside of Jordan, including local MPs.

The approach that took hold of the vision encouraged lax regulation of tech and used an overzealous tone that revered smart cities, unhindered collection of data, extreme solutions such as substituting humans with robots in the agricultural sector, and explicit wording that proposed turning Jordan into a “testing ground” for tech solutions.

As three states in the US have come to ban facial recognition in recent months to protect Americans’ personal data, one of the event’s recommendations went the other way by proposing facial recognition as a general policy — without providing context about why and for what purpose.
Civil society should have precedence at the “table”
Not a single local privacy advocate was present at the event or on the steering panels of the eight discussion groups that handled issues of quality of life, high-value industries, and sustainable environment.

However, a representative from the World Bank was part of the steering panel of the entrepreneurship and creative industries discussion group. The bank is the financier of a project aiming to turn Amman into a smart city — that no civil society organization was consulted on — using a top-down approach. As mentioned in a previous article, the tender for the said project was recently deleted from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship’s website.
This means international donor organizations had a “seat at the table” while a “made-in-Jordan” civil society body did not have the same access to determining the country’s future. Even though a local NGO, like JOSA, understands the local landscape far better than any donor organization.
Taking part in this event is probably the perfect spot for the bank to reintroduce its agenda within a participatory approach that, ironically, dismisses the contribution of the one civil society body that could offer a counter viewpoint.

The bank also had a second official sitting on the steering panel of the “Sustainable Resources” group, alongside a USAID official. The steering panel of the “Investment” group had a representative from the International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank Group. And the “Sustainable Environment” group had reps from the EU and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, which is funded by the German government.

This means international donor organizations had a “seat at the table” while a “made-in-Jordan” civil society body did not have the same access to determining the country’s future. Even though a local NGO, like JOSA, understands the local landscape far better than any donor organization.

The event’s “Future Services” group came out with several sectoral papers, including a report titled “Telecommunications and ICT”, which put forward a set of recommendations that could easily be described as tech-extreme.

Establishing smart cities across Jordan (with no safeguards whatsoever) is the least alarming recommendation. The proposal that invites a long pause cautions against the “overregulation” of the tech sector, with the unreasonable claim that the “exaggeration” in legal frameworks could hinder its progress.

This is verbatim the same argument that Facebook, Google, and other Big Tech companies have used before US Congress and in their lobbying campaigns to discourage laws that protect consumers’ personal data, which they have unethically monetized to make billions of dollars in untaxed profit over the past 18 years.

In Jordan, no such “overregulation” exists in practical terms, and the only legal framework that promises to protect Jordanians’ personal data is stuck in Parliament.

The paper, which does not want an “exaggerated regulation of new technologies” (such as artificial intelligence), neglects to acknowledge that the EU has already ventured into regulating biometrics-based technologies in its newly proposed Artificial Intelligence Act, which was introduced to cover the loopholes in the historic 2018 General Data Protection Regulation.

Such EU-led tech regulations, and the few ones currently being cooked up in the US Congress, will eventually become a worldwide reality in the coming three to five years. It is in Jordan’s best interest to foresee world data protection trends and adopt them at the onset.

Had JOSA been present at the economic modernization event, it would have offered a more balanced human-centric approach that advocated for expediting the ratification of Jordan’s long-awaited privacy bill, or the “Personal Data Protection Law of 2021”. The Prime Ministry sent the draft law to Parliament in January, where it got indefinitely shelved because of a “lack in political will”.

In a phone conversation with JOSA’s executive director Issa Mahasneh, he said digital transformation was important; however, “safeguards” needed to be in place to protect the personal data of Jordanians.

He stressed the importance of “building trust” for local consumers to buy into using governmental e-services and smartphone apps, saying “citizens do not trust the government’s digital services, and without trust, they won’t use them”.

In Mahasneh’s view, it was possible for “digital transformation and data protection” to go hand in hand. To elaborate, he gave the example of collecting “anonymized” data to estimate the public’s use of transportation solutions to improve the sector without infringing on users’ rights by personally identifying them — a point that was not raised at the event.

This goes to show civil society is an irreplaceable stakeholder that knows how to humanize socio-economic policies by introducing a point of view that challenges and refines ultra-capitalist attitudes, which, more often than not, erodes the middle class and aggravate poverty.

Without the input of bodies like JOSA, inequitable economic policies that put profit and technology before people will end up dictating our future. This will contribute to a wider trust gap between government and citizens, which is exactly the kind of reality that the economic modernization event came to remedy.


Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.


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