Oman Legal Citation Standard (OLCS)

Anyone doing legal research in Oman would know that there is no standard way for citing Omani laws. That’s why Yousuf Al Busaidi and I decided to create a standard for citing Omani legal authorities in a consistent and predictable manner so that those writing about Omani law do not have to reinvent the wheel every time they write a new paper, and those reading papers about Oman understand what is meant by the citation.

The standard we created is called the Oman Legal Citation Standard (OLCS). It is inspired by OSCOLA and is designed to work as a supplement to it. Version 1 of the OLCS is short and only covers primary and secondary legislation. We are aware that it does not cover a major category of legal authorities: court decisions, but we hope to cover this in one of our upcoming releases.

You can view the OLCS on Qanoon.om, if you have any comments on the standard feel free to share them with us.

Resources for Omani Legal Research

One of the biggest struggles that Omani law students and researchers face when considering doing any research about Oman is the lack of resources for this research whether it is in terms of literature, case law, or any information about Oman. Even accessing the law itself in Oman is not straight forward and cumbersome. The struggle is real, Oman is not a popular research topic and access to information in the country leaves a lot to be desired. However, I think that there are a lot of legal resources on the internet that many researchers are not aware of and that could be extremely useful when doing any legal research about Oman. Here are a few of them:

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My PhD App Toolkit

I thought I’ll write a post about the tools that I use for doing my PhD. My PhD is a library research that does not require me to do interviews or collect data, which makes it quite straightforward, but still when you work on creating a document that is hundreds of pages long based on hundreds of articles you need to have a set of digital tools to process and organise all your content. Here are the tools that I have found to be most useful:

Continue reading My PhD App Toolkit

Blocking Innocence of Muslims Serves No Purpose

Innocence of Muslims is a ridiculous film that is probably made with no objective other than offending Muslims worldwide. However, blocking its access in Oman serves no purpose at all.
The film has caused riots in many countries as it mocked Prophet Mohammed and portrayed him in a manner that offended Muslims all around the world.

Violent riots took place in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the American Ambassador to Libya was killed in attacks made by fanatics angered by the film. There is no doubt that the controversial film is offensive, but there is still no justification for the violence or the death of innocent diplomats as a response to the film. A number of Muslim countries, including Oman, decided to attempt blocking access to the YouTube video showing the film from within each of these countries.

I do not understand what the purpose is behind blocking this video. It cannot logically be an attempt to make sure that the people in Oman do not see the video and therefore not get offended and take violent actions in response. It is impossible to stop the public from watching the video because it has been uploaded to a million websites already and there is no way to block each individual link to the video. People have already downloaded the video and are sharing it on Whatsapp, Facebook, and many other services for sharing content. People are not going out of their way to watch the video because they want to be offended.

They are doing this because they want to know what the fuss is all about and they want to be able to make the decision for themselves on whether or not the video is in fact offensive. Blocking access to the video in Oman does not achieve anything, instead it mistakenly portrays Oman as a backward, volatile country that cannot tolerate a lame video made by a hateful person.

The irritating part about this story is that the video in question is a mediocre production that could be mistaken for a homemade video by a high school student and should not be worth the time we spend discussing it. Blocking access to such a video could be a start of a new trend where ISPs would feel that they have to block any video made by any person making fun of Islam or the Prophet.

Protecting the sanctity of religion is important, but freedom of expression is an important pillar of society as well. We should teach our people that we can be tolerant instead of ‘protecting’ them from the opinions of other people. We need to learn that it is okay for others to have different points of view, and we must have the right to access information and make our own judgements as to what is appropriate and what is not, because censorship surely is not the answer.

The Losing Battle of DRM

The core protection of copyright law is the right for a copyright owner to stop others from copying his work. Enforcing the rights of copyright owners in the digital era has proved to be difficult due to the ease at which content can be copied.

The market solution to this problem has been the creation of certain technological measures, such as digital rights management (DRM), that copyright owners use to make it technically difficult to copy a copyright work. DRM such as the protection methods used on DVD and Blu-ray disks make it extremely difficult for the average user to copy the video from the disk and save it on a computer. DRM, like all technologies, is not perfect as people have succeeded in circumventing the majority of DRM and consequently managed to copy the underlying work.

The response by the authorities to the failure of DRM in stopping the public from illegally copying copyright works was to pass additional provisions to the copyright law that grant separate protection against the circumvention of the technological protection measures applied to the copyright work.

This DRM protection is complimentary to the copyright protection of the original work and at the same time completely independent. This means that a person who breaks a DRM technology will be held liable for the infringement of the DRM provisions of the copyright law even if he does not consequently copy any protected copyright work.

While the protection of DRM sounds like a reasonable thing to do, the reality is that DRM protection trumps a number of legally permitted uses of copyright works, such as the creation of backup copy, the translation of the work into a format readable by a blind person, or the extraction of certain segments of the work for purposes of criticism or review. Circumventing DRM protection will technically constitute an offence regardless of the purpose for the circumvention.

The issue of DRM is complicated further by the fact that more and more manufacturers use DRM to restrict the users of their devices from installing unauthorised programs on the device regardless of whether or not these third party programs that the users wish to install infringe any copyright. That is why users of Apple’s iPhone must circumvent the protection measures, or ‘jailbreak the device’, in order to install third party apps that Apple does not approve of.

This action is not exclusively done by Apple, Amazon’s new Kindle Fire also has a closed app environment even though it is built on top of the more open Android OS.
These manufacturers use DRM for this purpose to ensure that all applications that run on the device are of a certain quality and that they conform to design guidelines that ensure a consistent user experience. Other obvious reasons for having such control are to ensure that the device manufacturer gets a share of the profits of any application sold on the application instead of allowing the sale through other independent application stores.

There is a great debate on whether or not manufacturers should have the right to control what the users choose to install on a device they legitimately bought and own, but it is extremely clear to me that this whole discussion should not be part of the copyright debate as the point of copyright law is to provide an incentive for authors to create more original works, and it is not meant to deal with issues such as manufacturer control and consumer rights.

The fact that DRM provisions under copyright law allow manufacturers to impose such control is clearly an unintended consequence of copyright law, and it should not be used to further restrict the legitimate users from carrying out acts they are entitled to by law.

TRA Says No Skype For You

The Telecommunication Regulation Authority has made it very clear in a recent press release that it has no intention of allowing the providers of unlicensed voice over internet protocol services (VoIP) to operate in the Sultanate – in other words, the TRA is saying that you should not expect Skype to be unblocked anytime soon.

The TRA does not technically ban VoIP services, instead, it requires that all providers of VoIP services apply for a license before they are allowed to provide such a service in the country. For example, Nawras is properly licensed to provide VoIP services in Oman, and it does offer VoIP through a dial-in number to have reduced rates to make calls to the Indian subcontinent. These rates are reduced, but they are not cheap, and they are obviously not available for other countries around the world.

It is great that the TRA thinks that consumers would be more protected against fraud and other wrongdoings that may be done by the provider, and there is no doubt that the economy could benefit from the taxation of the profits of those who register to provide VoIP services in Oman, but the fact is that Oman is such a small market and it is very unlikely for the big players to find it worthwhile their time and effort to come all the way here just to register to satisfy the legal requirements of the TRA.

The loss of the opportunity to make profit out of the Omani market is negligible to international businesses; the real losers here are us the Omani consumers. We have to pay extortionate fees to stay in touch with our family and friends outside the country, even those in places as close as the UAE and Qatar. Every day new technologies come out that make use of VoIP in one way or another and we never get the opportunity to make full use these technologies like the rest of the world because of the TRA’s policy to block all VoIP applications. Just think of the iPhone’s FaceTime and the hundreds of other applications on new smartphones for voice and video chat. While we do have an extortionate alternative to Skype (just use your regular phone to make an international phone call), the same cannot be said for all these new and crippled technologies which we are not allowed to use. Oman Mobile and Nawras are not capable of providing us with an alternative to FaceTime even if we pay them for it.

It is widely believed that the real reason why Skype is blocked is because the TRA wishes to protect the interests of local companies and help them make money off international phone calls, this will not be hard to believe if you think of the incentive the TRA would have to cut off this revenue stream from Omantel, a company in which the government still holds a very significant share. This desire to protect the business of making phone calls is very short-sighted. It is true that the widespread of VoIP could lead to a reduction of the use of regular voice services, but it will surely help promote the use of data services which are needed to use VoIP and any other technology used to communicate over the internet.

The TRA has to reconsider the way VoIP is regulated, Oman cannot seriously consider transforming itself into a knowledge-based economy when the basic means of communicating this knowledge are blocked and crippled for the sake of providing local businesses with an opportunity to make money off old and inefficient services.

Reform and Freedom of Expression

The greatest achievement from the protests taking place all around the country, in my opinion, is the fact that people now feel that they can freely express themselves and say what is on their mind without fear of prosecution. The Basic Statute of the State has stipulated freedom of expression as a guaranteed right, yet the majority would not dare to practice that right due to their lack of awareness of the extent to which they can do so and cultural and societal barriers against publicly criticising other people and government officials. That is no longer the case as the current situations has proved that the government is willing to tolerate a great level of freedom of expression, especially as we now see people at the “Speaker’s Corner” of the Shura Council, the reports on TV and newspapers, and the hundreds of videos on YouTube showing Omani people criticising publicly government officials and telling corruption stories of former Ministers.

At the same time as this great step for freedom of expression in Oman, surprisingly, and for the first time, an Arabic Omani blog was blocked from being access in Oman presumably because of some leaked documents that were published on that blog. The blog of Ammar Al Maamari has always been one of the most controversial Omani blogs, as he has again and again published confidential documents suggesting the corruption of certain government officials. This time Ammar got his hands on a sound recording of the former Minister of Interior threatening in to use brutal force to remove the protestors from Sohar Roundabout; a number of very old documents showing that a formal order was made by the government to tap the phone calls of a Omani political activist, and some medical records of the victims of the incident of police clash at Sohar Roundabout.

The sound recording of the former Minister of Interior was not really confidential and all those invited to that meeting were supposed to inform the public that force will be used if the protestors do not leave the roundabout – that was the whole point of the meeting. The Minister of Interior was also removed from his position and a now Minister has been appointed, so there really isn’t anything to worry about relating to this issue. The second set of documents regarding the order to tap phone calls of the activist is a really old matter and it is not relevant to anything happening right now. What I am more concerned about is the last set of documents relating to the medical records of those injured at the roundabout. In reality, these documents did not contribute to the uncovering of any major government secret – the government made a statement that one person was killed and the leaked medical records say that.

I do not support the illegal disclosure of confidential documents, especially those that relate to private confidential matters of individuals, especially as this leak seems to be made for the sake of getting some attention and causing more chaos, yet I still believe that it is wrong to block someone’s website. In this situation it might have been difficult for the authorities to take legal action against the blogger because he is not based in Oman, but that does not really make blocking the website justified because even if you block it the content will just be republished elsewhere – we still read what he posted even after the blog was blocked. Censorship should never be an option because it just does not work.

I do not know if the decision to block this website was made by a low-level officer or someone really senior, but as the Cabinet of Ministers has gone through a major restructure last week, I do hope that the government reconsiders its position in relation to internet censorship so that it goes in line with the new expectation in society to be able to freely express yourselves and share your point of view with everyone else.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

New Cybercrime Law

A new Cybercrime Law was recently issued by Royal Decree 12/2011. This new law criminalizes a very wide set of activities that relate to information technology systems and websites. Prior to the passing of the Cybercrime Law, issues of cybercrime were somewhat fragmentarily regulated by the Criminal Law and various bits and pieces of different legislation. This new law has a comprehensively wide scope and makes offense a variety of activities that may be performed using technology ranging from accessing a website or an information system without authorization and defacing a website, to using information technology methods for the purpose of money laundering, trafficking in people, and organizing terrorist groups – just to mention a few of the things specified in the Cybercrime Law.

A very interesting aspect of the new Cybercrime Law is the new offense of using the internet or any information technology means such as camera-equipped mobile phones to violate the sanctity of private and family life of individuals through the capture of photographs or spreading news, sound or video recordings connected to it, even if the information disclosed is true.

I do not believe that we ever had a provision in the law in Oman before which explicitly addresses the issue of privacy in such a manner. This provision is distinct from defamation or insults as the act will be considered an offence even if it exposes a true fact about the person – as long as that fact is private. The true scope of the provision is unknown yet, and even though it is limited to situations involving information technology, the fact that it now exists is a great accomplishment for the Omani legal system in attempting to protect basic human rights such as the right for privacy and family life. It is unfortunate though that the law seems to be limited to the mere concept of privacy to have sensitive information about your life not exposed and does not extend the right of privacy in the sense of having the right to be left alone which could have helped regulate the practice of sending unsolicited commercial messages and spam.

Another interesting provision in the new Cybercrime Law is the prohibition of using the internet or information technology methods to produce, display, distribute, make available, publish, purchase, sell, or import pornographic material as long as that material is not made for a scientific or a licensed artistic purpose. While the prohibition of pornographic material is not really something new, the fact that the law provides for an exemption for using what could be normally considered as pornographic material if that material is licensed to be used for an artistic work. This indicates a positive movement towards a generally more flexible system where people can be given the opportunity to experience artistic works in their original form without being censored or modified in order to abide by traditional rules of what is appropriate or not. The law does not go into detail as to what sort of works will qualify as artistic works or even the authority that is responsible for issuing this license, but at least we know now that censorship is not the only option.

The new Cybercrime Law is a comprehensive piece of legislation that touches upon a great number of offences and is clearly a move in the right direction.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

Freedom of Expression and the Telecommunications Law

A couple of weeks ago the status of human rights in Oman was examined at the Universal Periodic Review of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the international community praised the efforts Oman has made for the continuous development of the country, but also pointed out that a lot can be done to help improve a number of human rights such as the existence of the capital punishment in Oman, the treatment of foreign labour, the formation of civil associations, and the freedom of expression. Oman stated that it will consider some of the recommendations made at the review and that it will report any actions it will take in regard to these recommendations.

Article 29 of the Basic Statute of the State of Oman guarantees the freedom of expression within the limits of the law. There is no such thing as an absolute freedom of expression because our right to freely express ourselves should not infringe on the rights of other people not to be insulted or defamed. The problem in Oman is that the scope of the offence of defamation is not clearly defined and the Criminal Law does not provide any helpful defences to protect those who have a legitimate reason to criticise others. In addition to this, the Telecommunication Law holds owners of websites strictly liable for comments made by other people on their website regardless of whether or not the owner of the website had a chance to look at that comment or whether or not the owner had any reason to think that this comment would be offensive to others.

The current recognition of freedom of expression by the Basic Statute of the State is not very helpful because we do not know its actual scope in real life, the law can certainly benefit from a revision that clearly defines what defamation means. Defamation should be considered as such only when someone makes an untrue statement about someone else that lowers the opinion of that person in the mind of other people. If a statement is true then there shall be no reason why someone should be punished for making that statement, even if that statement harms the reputation of a person. The concept of defamation should distinguish between expressions made as a statement of fact and expressions of opinion. Everyone should have the right to state his opinion regardless of whether people liked that opinion or not, but no one should be able to claim something as a fact when it is not.

What is even vaguer than the concept of defamation in the Criminal Law, is the concept of “a message contrary to public order and moral” specified in Article 61(4) of the Telecommunication Law and for which a webmaster can be held liable even if posted by other people on his website. The law should specify exactly what sort of messages would be offensive (defamation of people, insulting a religion, spreading racial hatred, etc) and then provide a workable mechanism for webmasters to have a defence against that defence in the situations where the webmaster did not have any reason to think that such a message was offensive or did not have any reasonable opportunity to remove the offensive content once he knew that the message will be considered as legally offensive.

The great thing about the Universal Periodic Review of the UN’s Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights is that it puts governments under the spot and forces them to at least consider ways by which they can improve human rights in their countries. It will be interesting to see how Oman officially responds to these recommendations, especially as one recommendation specifically suggested that Oman reviews its Telecommunications Law to help empower people to practise their right for the freedom of expression.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.