Lebanon’s Cybercrime Bureau: A License to Censor?
In 2013, several journalists were summoned for investigation before the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau (the Bureau thereafter) over statements they made on the web. As a response, The Legal Agenda raised a number of issues relating to the existence and powers of this Bureau, particularly in terms of monitoring the activities of Lebanese citizens online.
The Bureau was not established according to legal protocols. Rather, it was established by means of a Service Memorandum (number 204/609 dated March 8, 2006) without issuing a decree to amend the organizational structure of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). The Bureau's legally questionable status undermines its authority to engage in law enforcement tasks and to obtain financial assistance from international and local parties.
Attaching this Bureau to the Special Criminal Investigations Department of the ISF’s Judicial Police (the division that is concerned with state security crimes, terrorism, money laundering and international larceny), suggests the intention by the ISF Directorate to become more strict in its investigation of cybercrime. Meanwhile, the government has yet to object to the directorate's exercise of powers that are the prerogative of government. The attachment of the bureau to the Special Criminal Investigations department might be part of a current trend among many Arab regimes of issuing laws to ostensibly counter cybercrimes, but aimed at oppressing the free space available on the internet that might threaten the survival of these regimes.
The importance of harnessing technical knowledge in the field of information technology to combat serious crimes, such as child pornography and electronic banking theft, cannot be denied. However, this does not reduce concerns about the vagueness of the Bureau’s powers. Not only is the Bureau’s status illegal. Its extensive powers to fighting crimes - that involve high information technologies- practically allows it to jeopardize basic freedoms associated with online activity, such as the freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
Extensive Investigative Powers: A Bureau Specialized in Online Free Speech?
The Bureau was not merely tasked with providing the public prosecution with the necessary technical expertise to deal with the information technology used to commit a crime. Public Prosecution offices across the country went further and began referring all complaints related to internet related crimes to the Bureau, while granting it the right to carry out comprehensive criminal investigations.
The Bureau was thus given extensive powers to summon any person for investigation at its offices in the Special Criminal Investigations Department, including individuals facing complaints over something they wrote in a "tweet", or published on Facebook or in a blog. This was the case with journalists and bloggers questioned by the Bureau regarding their online activity. These summons ran contrary to customary practice as inferred from the Press and Publications Law. The latter bans security investigations of journalists and requires that such investigations are conducted by a judge, in the presence of a lawyer, and away from police stations.
The summoning of journalists demonstrates the danger of assigning separate bodies to investigate online as opposed to offline activities. This is because journalists who publish online are denied the typical legal guarantees afforded to them. However, the case of journalist Mohammed al-Haj Ali, who appeared before the public prosecution on September 17, 2013, and refused to undergo additional investigation by the Bureau, has set a precedent. The incident reinforced the need to protect journalists from security investigations when it comes to their journalism work, in print or online, as a guarantee of their independence in the face of possible pressure by the authorities.
It is therefore necessary for the Public Prosecution and the Council of Ministers to limit the Bureau's powers to technical expertise and knowledge that supports the judiciary. It should function, for instance, like the scientific investigation units that carry out laboratory DNA tests without having the authority to summon or question subjects linked to a crime.
Monitoring Power With No Guarantees of Privacy of Internet Users
The illegally-established Bureau has thus the power to react in case of in flagrante delicto or when it receives information related to illegal cyber activities. But in the absence of special laws that protect the Lebanese users’ activity in cyberspace, the virtual world has become a vast and an unprotected arena open to all forms of intervention. Establishing such a censorship over these activities -such as the Bureau’s- without clarifying its functions and the limits of its oversight, stirs great fears. These include the possibility of undermining internet users' privacy by monitoring their activities, such as the websites they visit, as well as the relations and communications they carry out as a result.
Despite the fact that the confidentiality of electronic communications is protected under Law 140/1999, this Bureau is equipped with the necessary technical capability to access private correspondence among Lebanese users. Concerns of violating privacy are not alleviated by the fact that this law enforcement Bureau only acts upon the directives of the public prosecution. Individuals with law enforcement powers can strongly influence the course of investigations, particularly in view of the judiciary's lack of experience in the field of new information technologies.
Protecting the privacy of individuals who engage in cyber activities has become a global concern, particularly after Edward Snowden's leaks. The latter exposed the enormous US intelligence operation to monitor the private correspondence of US citizens and foreigners living in the United States, and even the heads of other states and the leaders of international organizations.
At a time when the world is discussing means to protect the right to privacy, we see Lebanon setting up a cyber watchdog, without any framework to protect the lives of internet users, including their private correspondence, data and photos from arbitrary interference. Regulating internet activity is not needed. What is needed is to implement controls on this Bureau's potential practice of censorship in conformity with Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to ensure privacy is protected and never undermined by arbitrary interference.
 See: Article 8 of Law 17/2008, regulating the Internal Security Forces, which stipulates the following: "1. The following shall be determined by a decree adopted by the Council of Ministers upon the Minister of Interior's recommendation after referring to the opinion of the Command Council: A. The establishment of entities and specifying their names on the basis of the organizational structure stated in the aforementioned Article 7…".