UNHRC_Eric Bridiers|

Shutdowns, surveillance, and censorship: UPR reviews highlight threats to digital rights

Several times a year, the U.N. Human Rights Council evaluates the human rights situation of U.N. member states through a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Since 2006, this process has aimed to promote respect for human rights and hold states accountable to their obligations. Access Now joined with partners around the world to submit reports on several countries due for review at the November 2019 session of the UPR, including Egypt, Gambia, Iraq, Iran, Bolivia, and Italy.

Our reports provide an overview of the state of digital rights in these countries, highlighting any developments since the previous UPR cycle that affect rights online. We focused on the rights to freedom of expression, data protection and privacy, and internet access and connectivity, detailing new laws, government activities, and private-sector abuses.

Threats to human rights in the countries under review include police surveillance of journalists online, mass website blocking and internet shutdowns, and harsh sentences for internet users violating vague and illegitimate laws. We also provide recommendations for each country, noting steps they should take to ensure that they protect and expand digital rights. Below is an overview of some of the issues we highlighted for each country (excluding Iran and Bolivia, which we wrote about separately).


Written in partnership with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) and Small Media, our submission on Egypt details the country’s record of monitoring communications. The Egyptian government has relied on surveillance software and technology from private companies such as Hacking Team and NSO Group to monitor everything from text messages, geo-location, and search histories, to dating sites, particularly for the LGBTQ community. The monitoring of LGBTQ people by the police has led to arrests, with police officers extracting confessions about sexual history through intimidation and incentives.

The government’s practice of online surveillance is now rooted in law. In 2018, the Egyptian Parliament approved the Law on Combating Cybercrimes (“Cybercrime Law”), which provides authority for online surveillance, blocking of websites, and monitoring of internet users and the use of communications services in Egypt. Approval of this draft is in line with a series of rights-harming laws the Parliament has approved since its election in 2015, most notably the Law of Civil Associations, the Law of Institutional Regulation of the Press and Media, and the Protest Law. The result is that citizens are deprived of their rights and the space for civil society is shrinking. Here are a few examples over the past few years:

  • In 2016, attacks were monitored that targeted institutional accounts of Egyptian human rights organizations and personal accounts of human rights defenders. The attacks, based on social engineering, have been used as a major means of targeted fraud; attackers impersonated companies such as Google, Dropbox, and FedEx to obtain personal data and passwords. Almost all the targets of these attacks were also implicated in a sprawling legal case brought by the Egyptian government against NGOs.
  • In 2017, the UAE purchased the Cerebro software from Amesys — the company later changed its name to Nexa Technologies — and presented it to the Egyptian government. The software enables Egyptian authorities to conduct comprehensive surveillance of communications through the Deep Packet Inspection, including voice calls, text messages, emails, instant messages, social networks, and search histories.
  • In 2018, technical reports revealed the Egyptian government’s use of the Pegasus spy software produced by the Israeli company NSO Group. The software works through convincing a target person to press a malicious and dedicated link, which once pressed, leverages secret vulnerabilities or “zero-day exploits” to penetrate the digital protection features on the phone and download Pegasus without the user’s knowledge or permission. Once Pegasus is installed on the phone, it allows the government operator to get access to the target’s data, such as passwords, contacts, calendar, text messages, and direct voice calls from applications. The operator can even operate the phone camera and microphone to capture and record activity in the surroundings of the phone.
  • In 2018, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the government body responsible for regulating the media sector in Egypt, formed a committee called the Follow-up Committee for Social Networking Sites. The committee is responsible for the daily follow-up of the social networking pages of various social sectors, including youth and adults, as well as in the different social classes, in order to identify daily the changes and developments in the prevailing ideas on these pages.

Freedom of expression is also under attack in Egypt. In the last four years, Egyptian authorities have blocked at least 512 websites ranging from media and news sites, to the websites of human rights organizations, to tools to circumvent internet censorship. The government also has the authority to impose heavy fines on those operating websites deemed to be a threat, without obtaining a court order. Furthermore, AFTE recorded 308 violations of the freedom of expression over the last four years, finding that arrests based on digital expression are among the most frequent violations documented.

In light of these violations to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, we call on the Egyptian government to:

  • Review its laws for consistency with its international human rights obligations;
  • Repeal the Cybercrime Law in full, and not develop any legislation that restricts internet freedom and the freedom of digital expression and privacy;
  • Unblock all blocked websites since 2017;
  • Cease imports of invasive surveillance technology and abolish all security service practices related to the control of communications and the internet; and
  • Release all prisoners who were arrested and tried on the grounds of expressing their views online.

See the full report here.


We joined a submission by ARTICLE 19 to draw attention to the obstacles Gambians face to freedom of expression and access to the internet. The internet penetration rate in the country is low, at only 18.5% of individuals with internet access in 2017, a marginal increase from 16% in 2016. The slow growth in internet access may be due to reduced funding by the government for internet cafes and telecenter hubs. Furthermore, investing in network coverage of rural areas has not been a priority for service providers, leaving Gambians in rural and marginalized areas among the most disconnected groups in the world. However, about 96% of the population is covered by a mobile cellular network. In fact, Gambia has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in Africa, with a rate 140% as of 2016 (meaning that there are 140 active mobile phones in use per 100 people). Most Gambians access the internet via mobile devices, with less than 2% of users subscribing to fixed-broadband services.

With such obstacles to access, the government has not taken sufficient steps to protect the freedom of expression online. Before a landmark election in 2016, the government ordered a nation-wide shutdown of internet and telecommunications services for more than 48 hours. Winning the vote, the new government under President Adama Barrow has taken steps to break with some of the restrictive practices of the previous administration. In particular, the government has committed to advancing human rights through legal reforms.

However, progress on securing the freedom of expression through legal and institutional mechanisms has been slow. The current constitution provides weak protection for freedom of expression, allowing for limitations through national law to be “reasonable,” rather than the standard used in the international law instruments of, “necessary in a democratic society.” As the government has committed to drafting a new constitution, we recommend that they include stronger protections for the freedom of expression.

Another legislative source of restrictions to freedom of expression is the Gambia Criminal Code, which was last revised in 2013 to increase various penalties. The Code still contains provisions which criminalize defamation, the publication and distribution of “seditious material,” and the negligent dissemination of false news or information.

Other threats to the freedom of expression are the dubious prosecutions of individuals for their online activity. In 2018, a political analyst was arrested and later released due to comments critical of the government that he made to a newspaper published in print and online. In another case, a group of soldiers reportedly still loyal to the previous president were prosecuted for treason in relation to some WhatsApp messages. Prosecutions such as these stifle free expression and the government must commit to ending such practices.

We call on the Gambian government to:

  • Commit to including stronger protections for the freedom of expression in the new constitution;
  • Reform the Criminal Code to fully protect media freedom and freedom of expression, in particular by decriminalizing sedition and defamation;
  • Refrain from disrupting telecommunications networks, applications, and services. Advise government officials from slowing, blocking, or shutting down the internet and mobile communications, particularly during elections and other political events, and reform laws to prohibit such disruptions;
  • Promote and facilitate open and secure access to information and communications technology, including broadband internet services, and enable the exercise of human rights, online as offline, particularly by persons at risk of becoming vulnerable or marginalized;
  • Cease dubious prosecutions over online activity to allow individuals and journalists to fully express themselves online; and
  • Ensure personal data and privacy is protected, consistent with international human rights obligations.

See the full report here.


In our report on Iraq, we draw attention to the country’s history of internet shutdowns, which restrict freedom of expression and cause harms to economic, health, and social rights and development. Between July 2015 and June 2016 alone, there were 22 total service shutdowns. Some of these shutdowns occurred during school exam periods; in fact, since 2015, there has been at least one internet shutdown per year during school exams. As recently as September 2018, the government announced a 10-day shutdown of all internet communications across the country for two hours each day. These exam shutdowns are ostensibly to prevent cheating on exams, but the government has shut down the internet for other reasons as well. In 2014, there was a total shutdown which the government described as a response to security incidents, but was evidently an attempt to combat embarrassing online news. In 2018, another multi-day shutdown was imposed in an attempt to curb online criticism and protests in Basra.

Our report also highlights legislative threats to the freedom of the expression in Iraq. In 2017, the Iraqi parliament reviewed a draft bill on freedom of expression that includes troubling provisions that would restrict rather than enhance freedom of expression. For example, the bill would strip foreign workers of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and prevent criticism of religion and religious symbols. However, after opposition by civil society groups and activists, the Iraqi parliament decided to postpone a vote on the draft bill.

In 2019, freedom of expression came under attack yet again with a draft law on cybercrime. This draft law, a slightly amended version of an earlier 2011 draft that was widely condemned by civil society, would punish vague and imprecise acts that could fall under the right to freedom of expression with life imprisonment and heavy fines. The bill also raises concerns due to its imposition of a maximum two-year prison sentence for defamation and libel.

In previous UPR cycles, Iraq received and accepted recommendations urging the government to guarantee and protect the freedom of expression. However, the last few years do not show progress.

Therefore, we call on the government to:

  • Refrain from shutting down or throttling internet and communication services;
  • Keep the internet open for free expression and the dissemination and receipt of information, without onerous licensing requirements on websites or social media users, and free from blocking or filtering of information; and
  • Amend both the draft law on cybercrime and the law on freedom of expression to ensure that they uphold rather than restrict rights. The government should take into account the concerns raised by civil society organizations regarding those bills and reflect them in future versions of the bills.

See the full report here.


Our report on Italy highlights the country’s reputation as a safe haven for cyber surveillance companies. In 2015, leaked documents showed that the Italian surveillance company, Hacking Team, was selling spyware to repressive regimes, aiding in the security compromise and surveillance of human rights activists and journalists. Following this leak, the government revoked the company’s global authorization to export its spyware, requiring it to seek individual licenses. (Employees of Hacking Team have since spawned new companies, notably Grey Heron  and Memento Labs.)

Despite Italy’s commendable action against Hacking Team, in 2016, yet another Italian surveillance company, Area, was found to be selling spyware to Syria. The authorities responded quickly as well in this case; however, they opened an investigation which was never concluded, leaving Area to continue operating with its export license. Access Now partnered with other NGOs to call on the Italian government to revoke Area’s license, but to date, the government has not taken action.

We also draw attention to Italy’s defamation laws which make defamation a criminal offense. The press is particularly vulnerable because defamation committed by medium of the press is an enhanced offense. Furthermore, the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for 2018 ranked Italy 46 out of 180 countries, noting that while journalists enjoy protection from the police, many are concerned by the recent election victory of the Five Star Movement which has been vocal in its criticism of the media. This criticism has led some journalists to censor themselves in an effort to avoid political harassment.

In light of these violations to freedom of expression and privacy, we call on the Italian government to:

  • Closely scrutinize corporate dealings with foreign governments in the technology sector, including by requiring human rights due diligence regarding supply chains, end-users, and intended and potential uses of technology exports;
  • Make its export licensing process more accountable to human rights, by considering the human rights record of the importing country, and the human rights due diligence of the exporting company, in the licensing process;
  • Increase transparency of its export licensing, by disclosing applications and determinations and investigating cases of potential misuse; and
  • Decriminalize defamation to promote freedom of expression. The government must also commit to protecting the freedom of the press by ending political harassment of journalists.

See the full report here.