Matt Nash

Draft law sparks debate in ICT sector

Majid Ibrahim, a Lebanese-American businessman, recently expressed hopes of turning Lebanon into a “mini-Silicon Valley in the Middle East,” echoing the oft-repeated view of those in the local IT sector that the country’s technology industry could be a serious money maker.

However, Lebanon’s archaic approach to developing and regulating the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector is hindering what industry insiders say could be a serious contribution to the country’s GDP. Lebanon is years behind in developing modern infrastructure to bolster the ICT sector, communication costs are exorbitant and internet speeds are painfully slow (and unlikely to speed up any time soon).

A draft law to regulate electronic transactions (read: doing business on the net) currently being debated in parliament is the latest example of the state’s bumbling approach toward readying the economy for the present, let alone the future, according to Gabriel Deek, secretary general of the Professional Computer Association of Lebanon.

A plenary session of parliament was supposed to vote on the draft law – which MPs have been writing since 2001 – on June 15, but the vote was postponed for one month. After a parliamentary subcommittee passed the law on June 8 – putting it on the agenda for a vote by all lawmakers – serious objections within the industry began.

Essentially, Deek and several other sources interviewed for this article said, the draft law, while necessary, is too vague and therefore open to abuse.

Deek has started blogging to draw attention to some of the draft law’s flaws, and soon a campaign to “Stop This Law” was in full swing on Twitter, Facebook and various other blogs. As users of these social media outlets urged people to e-mail and phone their MPs, Deek said he and the Beirut Chamber of Commerce lobbied Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and the vote was postponed.

The draft’s primary goal is to create a legal framework and regulations for conducting online business in Lebanon (it covers things like e-payment and e-signatures). It says that any entity conducting online transactions must apply for a license. The law also creates a regulatory body – the Electronic Signatures and Services Authority, or ESSA – to oversee net commerce.

“Its main objective is commercial, and it does not take into consideration the importance of [protecting] personal data in the commercial or business environment,” Mona Achkar Jabbour, a lawyer and president of the Lebanese Information Technology Association, told NOW Lebanon.

ESSA, according to the draft law, can launch investigations into businesses involved in e-commerce and seize all of their computers and records – including any personal customer data. Deek and Jabbour fear these powers can be misused.

Al-Akhbar reported that other ambiguous language in the law could be interpreted in such a way that anyone (bloggers, individual users) doing anything (like sending e-mails) would need licenses or could be investigated by ESSA.

Drafting the law has been a long and drawn-out process, according to An-Nahar. Former Beirut MP Ghinwa Jalloul first proposed a precursor to the law now being debated in 2002. In drafting the law, Jalloul told NOW Lebanon that she brought together experts on e-commerce, law and representatives from the Central Bank, the Association of Financial Institutions in Lebanon and a slew of interested ministries (Economy, Finance, Defense, Justice, Social Affairs and Telecommunications, among others).

Each party, she said, wanted to add different elements to the law, broadening the law’s focus. Jalloul did not run for re-election in 2009, and MP Ahmad Fatfat replaced her as chairperson of parliament’s IT subcommittee.

Fatfat told NOW Lebanon he knows little about internet regulations and has relied on experts and representatives of different government agencies and ministries to prepare the final draft. He was surprised by the outburst of frustration and anger from the sector and argued that it is clearly used to conducting e-commerce without regulation, is being overly sensitive and wants to continue working free of any restrictions.

Elissar Sayyed-Kassem, an expert in cyber-law and e-commerce law, agrees that the draft law is vague and open to abuse. However, she also said that while “not defending or opposing” the law, she thinks it should be passed because Lebanon is some 10 years behind many other countries in passing e-transaction laws.

Mohamad Najem, director of Social Media Exchange, an NGO that joined in opposition to the law early on, told NOW Lebanon that the one disturbing thing he has noticed is that none of the MPs he has spoken to appear to have actually read the law.

Deek and Najem say that opponents to the law from the business and ICT communities, as well as civil society groups, have been meeting since the June 15 postponement to hammer out the changes to the law they would like to see. Fatfat said the parliamentary subcommittee will hold more meetings and that he is open to changing the law, though he dismissed the idea of inviting NGOs to sessions. 

Fatfat expects parliament to vote on the draft in mid-July, though Najem is suspects it will be postponed again.

Regardless of the fate of this particular law, it seems a larger fight might be brewing. NOW Lebanon attended a June 18 meeting to discuss the law at the Professional Computer Association of Lebanon’s office downtown. While the discussion centered on the law, anger at Lebanon’s handling of the ICT sector was clearly on display.

To nods of agreement (that later became tweets from participants) Deek said the country needs laws that encourage and incentivize the building of a “knowledge economy.” “Banking and tourism,” Deek said, referencing the two big contributors to Lebanon’s GDP, “are we going to support them and them alone forever?”