The OpenNet Initiative Report on Oman

internetaccessoman
(Photo credits: squacco)

The OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University, has published last month an annual report on filtering and surveillance of the Internet in Oman.

The report summarizes the factors that contribute in censoring the internet including the legal framework and Omantel’s terms and conditions. The report concludes that censorship in Oman is primarily made on social basis as it focuses on pornographic, homosexual, and anti-hacking websites, but does not necessarily involve political censorship. The report claims that Omantel uses American-made censorship products such as SmartFilter.

The report also claims that the Omani government monitors “private communications, including mobile phones, e-mail, and Internet chat room exchanges, and interrogates chat room users who are critical of government officials or policies by tracking them through their ISP addresses”. The report cites as its authority on this fact the US State Department Human Rights Report that was published in March 2008.

The report is very interesting, but it has a number of inaccuracies (the majority of the websites mentioned are not actually blocked), cites irrelevant cases to support some points (the Omania case was a defamation case and had nothing to do with surveillance), and makes no mention Article 61(4) of the Telecom Law and the recent case of Ali Al Zuwaidi.

However, the report still paints a very general idea in the situation in Oman and how people are pushed to self-censor themselves even though the constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech. You can read it via this link.

The Economist Global Innovation Ranking: No Innovation from Oman

The Economist released a global innovation index sponsored by Cisco that ranks countries on the basis of the number of patents acquired by nationals of these countries at the US Patent and Trademark Office, European Patent Office, and the Japanese Patent Office.

All AGCC Countries, except Oman, made the list: Kuwait (Rank 37),  UAE (Rank 40), Saudi (Rank 42), Qatar (Rank 51),and Bahrain (60).

The list includes 82 countries and Oman is not on it. This means that no Omani individuals or companies acquired any patents at all from the US, the EU or Japan in the last three years.

This could be attributed to the general lack of innovation in the country due to education, professional training, or maybe even the work environment, it could also be caused by the lack of awareness of the patent system and the benefits of patent registration.

While nobody expects Oman to lead the list, it really sucks not to even be on it.

You can download the report PDF from this link. More info at the Economist.

[via IPKat]

Ali Al Zuwaidi’s Trial Outcome

Ali Al Zuwaidis Trial
(Baby photo credits: utpal)

Earlier today the court issued its ruling on the two cases of Ali Al Zuwaidi. The first case involved a defamation claim made by the CEO of OmanMobile  for content published on Omania2.net – an online discussion board which Al Zuwaidi moderated. Posting on various forums report that the court held that Al Zuwaidi is not guilty of the offenses of Article 61(4) of the Telecom Act. This Article specifies that a forum moderator is to be held responsible for content written by third parties on his forum if that content is contrary to public order.

It is unknown how the court reached the conclusion that Al Zuwaidi is not to be held liable, did the judge concluded that the defamatory content in that post did not amount to material contrary to public order? was it because the content did not remain for a long period on the website, or was there another defence? We don’t know.

The second case involved the disclosure of a confidential government document by Ali Al Zuwaidy on the forum. Al Zuwaidi, who is a civil servant, acquired a document through the course of his employment and then published it on a number of Omani discussion boards. The document disclosed the government’s intention to have a popular radio show pre-recorded instead of airing it live to ensure it’s ability to censor anything on it if it wishes. The court held that Al Zuwaidi was guilty of an offense for leaking a confidential government document in accordance with Article 164 of the Criminal Law 7/74. Al Zuwaidi was sentenced for a 10 day imprisonment and the payment of a fine of RO 200 ($500).

The court held that the time served during the interrogation (11 days) is to be deducted from the prison sentence, so in practice Al Zuwaidi would be required to pay the fine.

As a civil servant, Al Zuwaidi job might also be terminated in accordance with Article 140 of the Civil Service Law for committing a criminal offense or an offense related to trust and honor.

The actual text of the judgement is expected to be available to the public in a period of two weeks.

The Booz Allen Defamation Trial in Progress

The Booz Allen Hamilton Case
(Baby photo credits: utpal)

An anonymous member called “Boozallen” published a post on Omania2.net defaming the CEO and CTO of Oman Mobile. The CEO complained to the Public Prosecution which took action under Section 61 of the Telecom Law to prosecute the administration of the website.

There are many interesting points in this case, but it is necessary to talk about the facts. On the 20th of August 2008, the offending post was written in English on Omania2.net, but as An Arabic forum, the moderator named Ali Al Zuwaidy temporarily deleted this post on the grounds that it was written in a foreign language, however, after receiving some messages from other members, he unlocked it and made the following post:

 
أخي الكريم..
قمت في المرة الأولى بغلق الموضوع بسبب الكتابة باللغة الانجليزية، لكن بعد مراجعة الأمر مع احد الأخوة قررت فتح الموضوع وابقائه مع دعوة أي شخص لترجمة الموضوع ليتسنى للجميع الاطلاع عليه…
 

Translation: Generous Brother, I initially locked the topic because the writing was in the English langauge, but after reviewing the issue with one of hte brothers I decided to open it and keep it while inviting any other person to translate the topic so that everyone can view it.

On the 21st of August, the administration of the website decided to remove the thread from the public because of their fear that it offended a website policy on not posting anything that might violate the ruling system of the country. 

The complaint by Oman Mobile was made after the thread was removed from the forum.

This case is interesting because it probably is the first one to be about a post written in the English language. All previous major cases were written in Arabic, the case is also intereseting because the identity of the original post author was not discovered, and because the action is made against a specific moderator and not the owner or main administrator of the website. The court made the decision to take an action again Ali Al Zuwaidi specifically because he responded to the thread and actively unlocked it after it he locked it before.

The case is currently in progress and the next hearing will be held on the 17th of March. 

I think that this is a classical case for which Section 61(4) was specifically introduced. Webmasters should be responsible for content published on their website, it is illogical to think that people could simply argue that the post was written by someone else one a  website when they actively maintain as commercial platform for people to post messages for which they have direct control over.  However, the law is unfair because it does not provide a defence for webmasters who take reasonable diligent action to remove defamatory content from their website, which you can argue was the case here as the post was allegedly removed within 24 hours – even though the moderator previously did make an active choice to allow that post on the forum.

If Ali Al Zuwaidi is found guilty he could be prisoned for a period up to a year and fined up to a 1000 Omani Rials. 

It is worth noting that the Public Prosecution issued a press release today reminding people that sending messages that offen the public order could lead to criminal sanctions. 

Will be looking forward to see how this case progresses.

Omani Forum Member Imprisoned for Defaming Policeman

Policeman Defamed by Forum Member
(Photo credits: Geff Rossi)

Omani Arabic newspaper “Azzamn” reported today a recent online defamation decision by the Elementary Court to imprison a person for posting on an  online discussion forum claiming that the victim, a policeman, tortured to death a theft suspect.

Medical evidence was used in the case to prove that the death of the deceased theft suspect was natural. It was also noted that the defendant had previous arguments with the victim as the brother of the defendant was held in the same centre for the same theft case for which the deceased theft suspect was being held. Azzamn says that the defendant wrote what he did to get back to the policeman who refused one of the visits to his brother.

The court held that the defendant was guilty for two offences, the first under section 173 of the Criminal Law for insulting an employee while carrying out his employment duties or insulting him on the basis of the performance of his employment duties. The second offence was made under section 182(2) for claiming that another person is guilty of a crime for which he knows he is innocent or for which he fabricated evidence for the creation of such crime. 

The court decided to sentence the defendant to a one-month imprisonment for the crime of false-incrimination under section 182(2) and 15-days for the crime of insult under section 173.

This is an interesting case because it shows us that there is more than one ground for establishing defamation, if what you post constitutes a false-incrimination under section 182 then you would be liable for an additional  penalty that is greater than the penalty for a regular insult.

Link to Azzamn Article (Half way through the page – Arabic only).
Link to another recent Omani online defamation case.

Recent Omani Web/Press Defamation Judgement

Newspaper Defamation
(Photo credits: birdfarm)

The Supreme Court in Oman recently confirmed the reversal of a judgement holding a newspaper reporter guilty of defamation for referring in an article he wrote on the newspaper to a website containing defamatory statements of a person. The decision of the Supreme Court was reported two days ago by Al Shabiba Newspaper here (available in Arabic only).

It is hard to know what the exact facts of the case are from the decision as the case was tried before the Elementary Court and the Court of Appeal before getting the Supreme Court. Apparently what happened was that a women was defamed on a website, then the reporter wrote an article on the newspaper criticising some websites that defame people. The reporter had to go to court because it was claimed that what he wrote also amounted to defamation.

I am not sure what the article exactly said, but the article mentioned (1) the name of the defamatory website and (2) that it was published on the website that an “unnamed” female chairman of a company reached her position because she had a sexual relationship with an ambassador. This story was cited in the article as an example of defamation going online.

The prosecution argued saying:

فقد قام المتهم خلال شبكة المعلومات في الجريدة تحت غطاء النقد لما ينشر من خلال شبكة المعلومات إلا أنه في حقيقة الأم قد قصد الإساءة إلى المجني عليها وليس أدل على ذلك من قيامه بالإفصاح عن اسم وبيانات الموقع الذي يسيء إلى المجني عليها ويطعن في سمعتها وشرفها وأنها قد وصلت على منصبها كرئيس لمجلس ……………. لارتباطها بعلاقة غير أخلاقية بالسفير الأمر الذي فتح الباب أمام الكافة وأثار فضولهم للدخول على الموقع المشار إليه والاطلاع على ما يمس شرف وكرامة المجني عليها وحياتها الخاصة

What the first defendant published under the cloak of criticism was intended to attack the victim. The proof of this was the fact that he disclosed the name and the details of the defamatory website and that she reached her position because of her sexual relationship with the ambassador. This made the public curious to go to the website to learn about the violation of the honour of the victim and her private life.

The court said that for the crime of defamation to take place two elements must be established, (1) statements of defamation, and (2) making these statements in public.

ما يتعين إثباته في حكم الإدانة بجريمة إهانة الكرامة أمران : أولهما عبارات الإهانة، وثانيهما علانية الإسناد

The court held that the article was not defamatory because it did not mention the name of the victim, it did contain anything insulting of her or anything descriptive of her personal life. It also said that the arguments provided by the prosecution were “unsavory, unacceptable, and without any legal basis” as the article “criticised these websites and demanded they stop defaming people”. The court concluded that the original judgement is to be reversed as no defamation took place.

While this might now seem obvious, it was not obvious to the Elementary Court as it held the newspaper reporter guilty of defamation. The Supreme Court only held that defamation did not take place because the article did not mention the name of the victim.

We can learn from this case that defamation can occur throughout a chain. The fact that you are reporting (or blogging) about an incident of defamation can easily make you liable for it as well if what you write can be considered as defamatory statements even if these statements did not necessarily originate from you and you are merely reporting current events.

UDRP Local Experience: Bank Sohar/Oman Air

While we are still on the topic of the UDRP, I thought I’ll share with you an example of a local experience with the UDRP, and will show you an example of a classic case where the UDRP could be used.

BankSohar.com

Some of you might remember that when Bank Sohar launched its website it was hosted at a .net TLD and not the current .com TLD. This was obviously because someone registered the domain name before they did.

Late in 2008, Bank Sohar initiated a UDRP action against the website owner. Under the UDRP a domain name will be transferred to a TM owner if

  1. the domain name registered is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which Complainant has rights; and
  2. the registrant has no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and
  3. the domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.
In the action handled by AlBusaidi, Mansoor Jamal & Co (which was then Al Alawi, Mansoor Jamal & Co) the complaint claims and arguments consisted of the following:

A. Complainant makes the following assertions:

1.Respondent’s <banksohar.com> domain name is identical to Complainant’s BANK SOHAR mark.
2.Respondent does not have any rights or legitimate interests in the <banksohar.com> domain name.
3Respondent registered and used the domain name in bad faith.

The domain name registrant did not respond to UDRP process, yet the panel decided in his favour, because the domain name was registered before the trademark of Bank Sohar was registered. The complaint was denied. But it seems that the Bank Sohar later settled (they paid them) with the domain name registrant to get the domain name which it currently uses.

Though not a clear cut case, because the domain name was registered before the trademark was registered, it is apparent that the complaint was not defended well (I mean, out of the 15 page limit they had, Bank Sohar submitted three lines?!).

First of all, under WIPO UDRP decisions for the purposes of answering element 1, there is no requirement for the trademark to be registered before the domain name for similarity to be established, the registration day is a factor to be considered in the third element. Bank Sohar would have easily satisfied that element by citing this decision Digital Vision, Ltd. v. Advanced Chemill Systems:

“The Complainant has provided the registration documents for its DIGITAL VISION marks, within the USA and the EU. Registration for these marks postdate the domain name registration; however, Paragraph 4.a.(i) does not require that the trade mark be registered prior to the domain name. This may be relevant to the assessment of bad faith pursuant to Paragraph 4.a.(iii), which is considered below. I conclude therefore that the Complainant has satisfied the first requirement of Paragraph 4.a.(i)”.

For the second element, Bank Sohar was required to establish that the registrant did not have any legitimate interests in the domain name, this is established by stating that the registrant does use the domain name in a bona fide business and that the registrant is not known by that name, both of which are easy to establish, he is obviously not known by the name Bank Sohar nor does he use it in a business context.

The third element is the hardest to establish, because Bank Sohar had to establish that the registrant registered the domain name and is using it in bad faith. The problem here is that Bank Sohar registered its trademark and started its business after the domain name was registered, however, in cases where the the registrant knew of the existence of the complainant and it was clear that he registered to take advantage of the domain name later, then bad faith can be established. This was the bases by which a transfer took place in cases such as ExecuJet Holdings Ltd. v. Air Alpha America, Inc. I don’t think that it is hard to establish that many people knew about the Bank Sohar a year before it started doing actual business!

Bank Sohar lost this procedure because it did not argue its right at all. The choice of UDRP provider was also bad as WIPO clearly holds the cases I cited above as the majority view and it have been more likely for Bank Sohar to win this if WIPO was used as a provider instead of the National Arbitration Forum. No idea how much they had to pay for the domain name afterwards!!

You can read the decision text here.

OmanAir.com

Unlike the Bank Sohar case, the second part of this post is not about a case that happened, but about a cybersquatting example which can be easily won through the UDRP.

Again, some of you might remember when Oman Air used to have a website at the .aero TLD, it currently uses the oman-air.com TLD as its web address as well nowadays. The most desirable TLD though, omanair.com, is registered by a Sri Lankan since 2002. The domain is parked.

This is a classic UDRP case at which it is guaranteed that Oman Air can gets its domain back. If Oman Air wants to get the domain it has to establish in a UDRP procedure the following:

  1. the domain name registered is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which Complainant has rights; and
  2. the registrant has no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and
  3. the domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

In regard to the first element, the trademark is identical to the trademark owned by Oman Air, the location of the service and place of registration is irrelevant (case Guinness.com), if Oman Air did not have a registered trademark at that time it can establish that it had a common law trademark as Oman Air was commonly known by that name by 2002 (case: IdeaLeage.com).

In regard to the second element, it can be easily established as the registrant is not known by that name, not does not carry out any bona fide business using that domain name.

In regard to the third element, it is clear that the registrant registered the domain name to profit from the Oman Air’s trade mark, lack of usage has been considered an indication of bad faith (recent case example).

All in all, this case is a classic UDRP example which Oman Air can easily win if it uses the procedure.

Oman Air would be stupid to let somebody else take control of their domain name, the costs for using the UDRP are nominal (WIPO it costs $1500 while at NAF its $1300), and there is not to do it!

Other interesting decisions from the region include aljazeera.com and ebay.ae.

Internet Defamation – Comparison Between British and Omani Law


(Photo credits: Assbach)

Defamation and insults are some of the most controversial issues on the Internet. Most people think that they have an absolute right of freedom of speech to say whatever they want, but the reality is that your freedom of speech is subject to several restrictions, one of which is the right of others not to be defamed or insulted without any justification.

The anonymous nature of the Internet makes it tempting to think that defamation rules do not apply to online speech because of the difficulty to enforcing the law, but as we have seen, that is not the case, and even in Oman, people were prosecuted, fined, and even jailed for defamation related offences.

If you run a blog, a forum, or a website, or if you post comments anywhere on the Internet you have to be aware of the possible consequences of what you write. I will try to explain the differences between the defamation law in the UK and Oman and the difference in liability limits of website owners in both countries.

First of all, defamation in the UK is a civil action while in Oman it is a criminal offence. This makes it worse in Oman because the penalties for it will be criminal penalties, while in the UK it is mostly a matter of payment of financial damages.

In the UK, defamation occurs when a person makes a statement about a person and that statement lowers the opinion of that person in the mind of right thinking members of society. Only living people can be defamed, and a person can defend himself if he can prove (a) that what he said is true, or (b) that what he said was an opinion/comment and not a statement of fact. This is governed by the Defamation Act 1996.

The concept of defamation in Oman is completely different because it is considered a criminal offence. A person will be guilty of an offence if he ‘insults the dignity of any person’ through a public act, speech, shouting, writings, drawings, photography, videography, or the use of any sign. There is no definition in the law of what an ‘insult’ to someone’s dignity means. It is possible for the relatives of an insulted person to complain, even if that person was dead. A defendant may have a defence if he can prove that the other person provocated the defendant or if both parties exchanged insults.

In addition to the basic insult offence, Omani law also creates an special offence for insulting an employee in his professional capacity so that a person commits an offence is he ‘insults an employee through the speech, public acts, or publication while the employee performs his job or on the basis of his job’. �Both forms of insults are�governed by the Criminal Law 7/74.

Both of the Omani and British law are subject to changing moral values as what ‘will constitute a degradation of opinion in the mind of right thinking people’ will vary from time to time as will an insult under the Omani law. However, under British law it is clear that the matter is not subjective to what the defamed person though, but what society thought of the issue, however, under Omani law it is not clear if an insult is a subjective or objective issue. I do not have access to cases or court decisions to identify how this issue is decided in Oman.

Now that you have an idea of what is defamatory or not, you might want to know for how of much of this will you be liable for online. If you are a blogger or a website owner, defamation can occur on you website via one of two methods, the first one is when you post defamatory content on your blog, the second is when you someone posts a defamatory comment (defaming a third party, not necessarily you) as a response to a post you wrote.

If you wrote the post yourself on your own blog or website, you will be held liable for it. It is something you wrote yourself and if that post can be linked to you as an individual then you are liable, under both British and Omani law. To escape liability, you should try to use a defence such as ‘justification’ under British law or ‘provocation’ under Omani law.

However, if somebody else wrote a comment on your blog, then there is a chance that you might be liable for it even if you did not write it yourself. British and Omani laws differ completely in how this treat this liability.

British law generally realises that at many times website owners are genuinely innocent and have no control over content written by other people. They also realise that increasing the risk of liability of website owners can stifle the pace of innovation. For this purpose, the Defamation Act provides a defence for website owners if they can satisfy the following:

  1. he was not the author, editor, or publisher of the statement complained of.
  2. he took reasonable care in relation to its publication.
  3. he did not know, and had no reason to believe, that what he did caused or contributed to the publication of a defamatory statement.

Not all websites will be able to use this defence because only certain websites will be not considered publishers (websites that have no effective control over actions of their visitors). An easy example of the use of this defence would be in the case of a forum moderator, who cannot practicaly monitor each single post made by the members, however, he will only succeed if he shows that he took reasonable care and did not just leave the forum without any moderation. This will obviously depend largely on the facts.

The case in Oman is very different, first of all, there is no general defence for website owners in the Criminal Law, but the Telecommunication Law makes the website owners, managers, and supervisors responsible for any statement published on their website if they incite or agree to publish that if it is contrary to public order and morality (Article 61(4)). This is NOT the same as an insult under the Criminal Law, it is a different criminal offence that does not require a defamed person and has a very wide scope. There are no defences under this section, but the requirement for consent might save a website owner if the event when someone hacks his website and puts a defamatory statement on it. In that case he obviously did not consent to that statement.

This article was clearly introduced to hold website owners liable for the content written by anonymous people regardless of whether or not the web master knew about it or not. It makes sense for a website owner to be liable because he has control over the website, but the law does not provide any defence for innocent web masters and the law does not seem to care about stifling the development of local web content.

A very interesting development happened through the passing of the Electronic Transactions Law in Oman, this law provides websites that fall under the definition of a “Network Agent” with a defence found under Article 14 to protect the Network Agent against any criminal or civil liability arising out of information included in an electronic record if the Network Agent (1) did not know any facts which could indicate the liability of this record and (2) instantly removed this information from all his systems once he knows about the liability arising out of this information.

The definition of an electronic record is very wide as it includes a “contract, record or message”, the definition of a network agent includes any legal or natural person who provides any services related to an electronic transaction, and an ‘electronic transaction’ is any procedure or contract concluded or performed fully or partially through electronic messages’.

The purpose of the Electronic Transactions Law is to provide certainty and protection e-commerce. It is based on a couple of UNCITRAL model laws and was drafted with the help of international consultants who realise the importance of such protection for businesses to operate, unlike the Telecom Law which introduced Article 61(4) explicitly to conclusively hold website owners liable without any thought to the impact of this web culture.

However, the wide scope of the nature of the Electronic Transactions Law means that any website that has a commercial nature can be covered by it. Surely an advertisement is a service related to an electronic transaction. This can make any website monetized by advertisement capable of being considered as a network agent, and from there you can argue that you should be able to use the defences under the Article 14 claiming that you are not the source of content written by other people and you merely provided access to it.

The fact that the Electronic Transactions Law came after the Telecom Law means that in areas of conflict the newer law will apply, so it does not matter that the Telecom Law says something else.

This is relatively a long shot, it has not been tested by the court and I am creatively interpreting the law in attempt to establish a defence. The court might have a completely different opinion on the matter. We will not know how it will be interpreted until somebody actually gets sued.