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The West Is Fighting For Net Neutrality, Will The Middle East Follow? We Ask Digital Grassroots

We sit down with Noha Abdel-Baqy, Digital Grassroot's co-founder and ambassador in Egypt, as she details how they empower youth against net neutrality violators.

Last year, Internet users in the U.S. were appalled by the congressional vote giving the green light to the Federal Communications Commission to remove rules that they have placed. Those rules were placed a couple of years before to protect what is known as Internet or net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. So, if a government abides by net neutrality, they are not allowed to block, slow down, or charge money for specific websites and online content.

In Cairo downtown's Eish and Malh, Noha Abdel-Baqy sips her coffee as she tells us her story with this spectrum of communication technology. "I got into the internet governance by luck," she tells Startup Scene. Abdel-Baqy graduated from Ain Shams University in 2004, with a degree from communication systems and electronic engineering. After graduation, she was interlocked in the corporate cog working in several multinational companies such as Orange Business Services and DLEMC. "As I was applying to different youth opportunities, I applied to a fellowship by the Internet Society, and enrolled to a course called Intro to Internet Governance," she says. "I gladly got selected to attend the Internet Governance Forum in the UN office in Geneva. Along the way I gained many connections, got my chance to share my points of view and listen to internet issues from around the globe."  

This is where Abdel-Baqy met with a group of net neutrality activists who decided to start a state-agnostic movement: Digital Grassroots. "We are more than 11 co-founders from 11 different countries mainly from Africa," she says. Despite being major stakeholders of the internet, the activists found that youths and marginalised communities are often not included in major policy developments and implementation processes that affect the future of the internet. With a growing knowledge gap in Internet literacy, the Digital Grassroots movement wants to empower youth across the world with the right information to be able to resist legislations that violate digital rights. The initiative aims to spread awareness about internet governance among youth between 14 and 29 years old. 


Digital Grassroots is an online and volunteer-based internet community with zero funds so far. However, they receive a lot of support from peer organisations and other entities; "Internet Society has adopted us and we are under its civil society umbrella," Digital Grassroots' ambassador in Egypt tells us. Internet Society is an American nonprofit organisation founded in 1992 to provide leadership in Internet-related standards, education, access, and policy.

"We receive mentorship and are now hiring ambassadors from different regions to spread our vision," she says. "The policy makers in the Internet Governance Forum is dominated by elders and men. If any field is dominated by men, they won’t consider the needs of women or any marginalised groups. That is why we need to celebrate diversity in any field, not just internet governance."

Net neutrality in the Middle East is merely non existent. At least 10 percent of bloggers and activists have been arrested and forcibly expelled from the Middle East; at least 35 of which are held in Egyptian jails, and the crackdown is still ongoing. "If you think about it, you will find that mainly the Egyptian government is the one pulling the strings, they constraint many websites," says Abdel-Baqy. "The internet users should be involved in internet policy making, not just the government and private sector."

The communications engineer argues that the majority of Internet users in Egypt don't know about their digital rights, in fact, so little know of their existence. "The internet needs to be open without blocking any content, it should be accessible and decentralised," she recommends; explaining that decentralisation happens in a certain method  allowing people from different groups to share their knowledge, opinions and any other content. 

"Centralising the Internet occurs by sharing a monopoly of thoughts, opinions, or points of view," she elaborates further. "This is happening in Egypt and all around the world, we need to have a safe space to express out thoughts." On June 5, the Egyptian Parliament approved a controversial law submitted by the Prime Minister’s cabinet to combat cybercrime. The law would require that Internet Service Providers to supply national security authorities with information on users suspected of spreading "terrorist" and "extremist ideologies" on the worldwide web. Waves of outcries and denouncement from human rights and press freedoms activists circulated on social media channels - even legal academics. Professor of Constitutional Law at Menoufia University Fuad Abdelnaby criticises the law for its loosely defined terms and vague content that make it easy to convict any person of “threatening national security,” “damaging family values,” or “affecting public morals” without giving a clear definition of these offenses.

Moving from public to private sector and their control and exploitation of big data, Abdel-Baqy tells us her take on the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal last March. "There was a data breach of 87 million users by a third party company which used this data from Facebook make money for other purposes," she says. The data collected by the third party company, which was Cambridge Analytica, was allegedly used to influence U.S. voter opinion on behalf of politicians who hired them. Cambridge Analytica had been collecting the data since 2014 and it was only discovered and taken to court three years later. "There is a need for transparency between the Internet provider and the users; we need to read our terms and conditions before accepting them."  

Even though the figures and statistics aren't pointing to optimistic curves, Digital Grassroots still believe that net neutrality is not a lost cause. "I'm really hopeful," Abdel-Baqy persists. "The Arab Spring was based on Facebook right? So, we can have a second Arab Spring asking for freedom of speech, open internet and neutrality."

In the U.S., people are protesting to get their net neutrality back, that’s what inspired Abdel Baqi to spread awareness on internet governance, and in turn empower the users in the MENA region. We still see the internet shut down. "There is no such thing as neutrality in our region," she says. "Websites get blocked, and so does content. What we really need is a revolution of the internet users. People need to ask for their rights."

Main Image: Noha Abdel-Baqy in Eish + Malh.

Courtesy of #MO4Productions

Photographer: Mohab Mohamed  


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