How the Sudanese government legalized content categorization and filtering on the internet Global Voices Français
Internet has been cut several times in Sudan since 2018 after the revolution. Social media shutdowns have also become common since the government blocked YouTube during the 2010 election after a video showing voter fraud was uploaded there. Sudanese authorities have blocked access to many social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram to prevent people from sharing information about the protests that led to the ousting of former President Omer Al Bashir in 2019. Authorities have not provided a reason for the shutdown social networks.
Most internet shutdowns in Sudan involve turning off mobile data. During shutdowns, people can access the internet through fixed internet connections, which are rare except among businesses. Even after the Internet was restored in July 2019 and November 2021, social media platforms were not accessible and people were forced to use VPNs to access it.
Usually, citizens are not warned of an impending shutdown. One minute their mobile data is working and the next minute it is gone. The government has announced its intention to shut down the Internet only twice in the two years this happened, both times in the high school exam. Telecom operators sent text messages to subscribers saying:
“Under the direction of the judicial authorities, the internet will be shut down daily during the Sudanese Certificate examination sessions from 8 a.m. until the end of the session at 11 a.m..”
The message does not specify the law under which the authorities made this decision.
Internet shutdowns and interruptions are not unusual in Sudan. The government shut down mobile data several times in 2020 and 2021 during tribal conflicts, high school examsand the Coup d’Etat of October 25, 2021 led by the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Lt. Gen. Burhan. The law is a major tool to enable these closures, as the government relies on the Armed Forces Actthe Public Safety Actand the law of the Telecommunications and Postal Regulatory Authority (TPRA) to give them that power.
Even so, Sudan has regulations to protect the accessibility of web content. A settlement has been issued by the TPRA in 2020 and ratified by the Member of the Sovereign Council General Ibrahim Jaber because at that time, the telecommunications sector was under military supervision. Jaber is also Chairman of the Sudatel Group Board of Directorsthe national telecommunications operator which also operates in countries other than Sudan, such as Mauritania and Senegal.
The regulation is called “The Internet Content Filtering and Website Blocking Regulation 2020.“ It has been published pursuant to Section 88(1) of the TPRA Act of 2018 which empowers the TPRA Board to make regulations to implement the Act. The settlement required TPRA to provide telcos with a list of URLs to block and filter, and to “monitor daily” filtering equipment to ensure it was up to date.
The settlement required ISPs and carriers to provide an “immediate response” to blocking requests from the TPRA and to ignore any request from any other entity without a court order. Therefore, the authority has given itself the right to block websites without a court order while forcing others to take legal action. In addition, regulations required ISPs and telecom operators to grant him access to the graphical user interface (GUI) of filtering systems, providing statistics and periodic reports on filtered websites and pages.
Vague terms such as “belief” have been used to justify this blocking. Article 14 of the Web Content Filtering and Blocking Regulations stated: “Telecommunications companies are required to provide the technical systems necessary to protect their networks and services against use contrary to belief and morality. While respecting the controls, procedures and screening and blocking requirements determined by the authority. The regulations did not define “belief”: is it Islamic belief or is it related to another religion or ideology?
The regulation categorized blocking and filtering lists into two types: local and commercial. She defined the commercial list as: “List of classifications entering the filtering and blocking systems of the system supplier, which contains the international classifications of the filter lists”, while she defined the local list as: ” An internal list prepared by the authority by adding the sites classified by the authority or received by the users after having examined them and making sure that they contain prohibited elements.
The trade list contains 13 categories which are “chosen to be blocked”. These categories include drug websites, alcohol websites, tobacco websites, child pornography, weapons manufacturing, malware, and spam. The list also contains vague categories like “sites offensive to religion and calling for atheism,” refusing to respect freedom of belief by classifying atheism as an untouchable activity.
The list, surprisingly, classifies VPN sites as unauthorized. It also blocks Peer-to-Peer websites such as BitTorrent. Both of these classes can be seen as indicators of authorities’ intention to monitor users’ online behavior.
The regulation gave authorities the right to freely add new categories, designating the last category of the commercial list as “any other classification classified by the authority”, opening up a huge space to legally block all access to web content.
Sudan has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Also, Sudan is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and ratified the law which guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to receive information.
Despite this ratification, Sudanese domestic law does not comply with international standards and does not guarantee the digital rights of its citizens.