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Yasser Abu Hilala

Twitter must relocate its Middle East office from oppressive UAE to democratic Tunisia

Twitter users in the Middle East are exposed to hacking and government intrusion [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 June, 2020

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Comment: To protect Twitter and its users, immediately relocate Twitter's regional office to Tunisia, the only democratic country in the Arab world, argues ex-Al Jazeera chief, Yasser Abu Hilala.
No matter how much damage has been done to us by abusive attacks encountered on Twitter, we remain forever indebted to this platform. After all, recall that the 25 January Revolution in Egypt was once described as the Twitter Uprising. 

Indeed, Twitter has given activists, scholars and intellectuals a platform that would never have been possible in conventional media, becoming an essential source of information and knowledge, and a public space open to constructive dialogue and positive influence.

Recent attacks by US President Donald Trump on Twitter have only served to reinforce its credibility compared to other social media platforms - many Facebook senior employees even changed their profile images to Twitter's logo, to protest what they consider their CEO Mark Zuckerberg's deferrence to authority compared to Twitter. For regardless of the polarisation or special interests that may have prompted Twitter's censorship, labelling or fact-checking of some of Trump's tweets, this course of action has caused material damage to the company.

Unfortunately, however, this principled approach on the part of Twitter is weak or totally absent in the Arab region.

Twitter has failed to put a stop to disinformation by 'electronic flies' [bots], which operate in a systematic, brutal way in violation of not just Twitter rules and policies, but real laws outlawing libel, defamation, harassment and violations of privacy. The only reason for this failure is that Twitter's regional headquarters are in the United Arab Emirates.

Read more: Saudi trolls hijacking dead people's Twitter accounts to amplify Riyadh propaganda

Twitter bots have been implicated in major crimes, such as the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. In 2018, British newspaper Metro revealed a Saudi journalist had died under torture in his country, after Twitter's Dubai office allegedly disclosed his identity to the kingdom's authorities.

The journalist, named as Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Jasser allegedly ran a Twitter account called Kashkool, "which exposed human rights violations by Saudi authorities and royals," according to Metro. Jasser was arrested on March 15, 2018, then died "while being tortured in detention,...prompting fresh outrage over an alleged leak of information that lead to his capture".

According to Metro's report, the Saudi authorities were able to identify Jasser thanks to information allegedly shared by Twitter's Dubai office, which was accused of involvement in spying on the accounts of Saudi dissidents.

Jasser, like Khashoggi, was assassinated. Yet there have been no investigations announced to either exonerate or hold accountable Twitter employees in the UAE, despite the imperative to protect other journalists and dissidents, and do justice by Jasser and Khashoggi.

Then there is the case of Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee allegedly bribed by the office of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to spy alongside Saudi national Ali Alzabarah on thousands of Twitter accounts. Yet Twitter's Dubai office has issued no clarifications on the extent to which users have been exposed as a result of this infiltration, as established in US courts. 

We, Twitter users, have not received any clarification either about any alleged relationship between Kinda Ibrahim and the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK Foundation): Ibrahim is a senior official in Twitter's Dubai office, and Misk's director has been accused of recruiting Abouammo.

Read more: Suspicions raised over disappearance of close MbS aide and suspected Twitter spying mastermind Badr al-Asaker

Did Ibrahim's alleged links to MisK end? What was the nature of these alleged links in the first place? Could she have been rewarded by Twitter thanks to such alleged links, with a commission or promotion? We have the right to know.

Beyond all these details, the UAE is up there on the same ranking as China on public freedoms. The UAE is considered one of the most oppressive countries when it comes to internet freedoms, with a long record of spying, piracy, and repression, as well as bribery, recruitment, and infiltration.

So how can a professional institution such as Twitter operate in such conditions? Do its millions of users have any protections or guarrantees? Can any Arab dissident go to the UAE and sue anyone? Can a Qatari national do that?

During the past month, we have seen a truly despicable and decadent campaign against mostly Al Jazeera journalists.

After they reported the abusive tweets against them, many of these journalists complained that Twitter's responses in Arabic claimed there was no violation of Twitter's policies and rules, or would confirm the violation but take no action. Furthermore, it took more than a month to close one account that was engaged in that systematic smear campaign.

Read more: Al Jazeera journalists targeted in misogynistic 'Saudi-linked' Twitter smear campaign

In a series of tweets, Marc Owen Jones, an expert on Twitter disinformation, recorded one aspect of the campaign, especially targeting Al Jazeera presenters Ola Al-Fares and Ghada Oueiss, saying they were attacked by up to 25,000 tweets and re-tweets that contained violations of all Twitter rules, yet with "Twitter seemingly reluctant to do anything".

In truth, Twitter cannot do anything in a country where someone like Hamad Al Mazrouei leads the Twitter scene, even as he engages in all forms of bullying, harassment, and racism, with support and guidance from the UAE's highest authorities.

There is only one solution to protect Twitter and its users: Immediately relocate Twitter's regional office to Tunisia, the only democratic country in the Arab world. Move it now, so that no more journalists are killed like Jasser and Khahoggi, whose bodies were never found, and whose hackers were never held accountable.

Crimes of physical and moral assassination will otherwise continue, with Twitter Dubai's office not doing what must be done.

Yasser Abu Hilala is a reporter, writer and journalist who served as Al Jazeera's director-general between 2014 and 2018.

Follow him on Twitter: @abuhilalah

This is an edited translation of the original article in Arabic


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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