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Lebanon has faced a sharp economic crisis beginning in 2019, just before the October 17 protests erupted. Among its most prominent features was the devaluation of the local currency against the US Dollar from 1,507 Lebanese Liras to the US Dollar to more than 40,000 Lebanese Liras to the US Dollar in October 2022. This led to the shrinking of the GDP along with the Lebanese Central Bank foreign currency reserves, which led the country into a situation where it became difficult to get more than 2 hours of state electricity per day, as well as electricity being off for days and months in many areas. This also led to the inability of Ogero, the main nerve of the telecommunications sector in Lebanon, to afford fuel and maintenance for the transmission and telecommunication centers.

Since Ogero is the only official internet service provider that works directly under the supervision of the Lebanese Telecommunications ministry, the internet service has seen multiple and major disruptions from the peripheries to the major cities, including the capital Beirut. Along the same lines, the power cuts and the inability to purchase fuel and perform maintenance have contributed to the disruption of the services of the mobile service providers “Alfa” and “Touch”, which are the only mobile communications and mobile internet providers in Lebanon.

Informal Networks after the Crisis

In addition to Ogero, which was considered the largest internet provider in Lebanon (60% market share), there had been around 114 licensed ISPs in the country, and naturally the service disruptions have affected their users as they procure their services from Ogero. According to the Lebanese Telecommunications minister then Johnny Corm, informal internet services had had the largest share of subscribers (62%) pulling ahead of Ogero, considered to be the largest internet service provider that year (60%).

However, what stands out is that some ISPs continued to provide services and took advantage of the situation in order to raise their fees and dollarize them instead of charging in Lebanese Liras after having threatened to go on strike, which poses questions about their legitimacy as well as their sources of internet service.

Minister Corm then stated that the informal internet sector “completely controls the distribution of its products and largely controls the corresponding internet market,” considering that “it has become very advanced, and that is an unacceptable situation, both legally and practically.” The minister unveiled a plan that the ministry of telecommunications had put in place to deal with informal ISPs which states that “the internet shall not be cut off consumer and that the wasted state income resulting from not reporting subscribers and profits shall be traced,” which basically means the legalization of informal ISPs and “absorbing them into the state.”

Fast-forward into Crisis-ridden Lebanon: Raising prices 500%

The situation continued to deteriorate until mid-2022, specifically July, when the Lebanese government started, based on a suggestion by the ministry of telecommunications, to apply the new pricing for telecommunication and internet services, which was estimated to be 5 times the previous fees, not taking into account the purchasing power of the citizens and residents, especially those who get paid their salaries in Lebanese Liras. A government decree passed in May 2022 proposed shutting off the 2G network and 80% of the 3G network in order to save around $120 million over a 3 year period. Despite that, the minister of telecommunications insists that the services are constantly improving. 

Since Ogero employees receive their salaries in Lebanese Lira, they went on a strike in August that lasted for weeks, which contributed to the increased deterioration in the quality of telecommunication and internet services in Lebanon, and that’s before the situation reached the two mobile service providers, whose employees also went on strike one week after Ogero’s employees. This led to the disruption of telecommunication and internet services at humanitarian institutions such as the Lebanese Red Cross, hospitals, security apparatuses, and other institutions. After that, an agreement was reached with the telecommunication services staff that included improving their rising living expenses and transportation compensation. 

Funding from People’s Pockets instead of Seeking Accountability

Instead of working on fighting corruption, shutting off the waste drains in the telecommunication sector, and assessing the situation of the telecommunication sector strategically, like enacting national roaming and the telecommunication regulatory authority, prices were raised.

Due to raising the telecommunication prices five times on average, many of the residents of Lebanon face difficulties in adjusting to the new prices, such as app-based taxi drivers, delivery workers, and even students, whose parents faced a financial crunch to begin with.

Also, waste could have been combated and investment could have been increased before the crisis. The Court of Audit, which is a government oversight institution, stated in its April 2022 report that there were billions of dollars of waste in the telecommunications sector. Despite that, the Lebanese judiciary did not mobilize as it should have in this case. The report stated that in the ten years between 2010 and 2020, the income of the telecommunications sector was about USD 17 billion, USD 11 billion of which were transferred to the state coffers, while USD 6 billion were spent on operations and other costs without any accountability. For example, Touch started rolling out the 3G network at a projected cost of USD 25.6 million and it ended up costing USD 128 million, while Alfa’s project started with a USD 41.6 million budget and ended up costing USD 170 million.

The documented report makes it clear that the telecommunications sector in Lebanon was considered a main source of income for the state budget, while the operation costs were targeted for profiteering from public funds. Despite that, the telecommunication minister in PM Najib Mikati’s government Johnny Corm said that “the Audit Bureau’s report needs follow up,” while the director of Ogero Imad Kreidieh opposed the report saying that “it contains fallacies.”

Reform, or an Accelerated Collapse?

In September 2022, which is 2 months after the price increase decree, the director of Touch Salem Itani said that the “network is operating at an 87.5% coverage rate currently, while the company’s goal is to reach 95%, and that the company has achieved a 90% improvement in the quality of telephone communication coverage, which is what was agreed upon with the ministry of communications, reaching 80% coverage, which represents a 27% improvement in the quality of service.”

The director of Alfa, Jad Nassif, pointed out that “60% of the areas enjoy network coverage that exceeds 90%, while this coverage drops to 80% in other areas, such as the capital Beirut and Marjeyoun.”

At the same time, Lebanon improved 5 spots in Ookla’s mobile internet speed index to rank 71st globally, registering speeds that reach 26.89 Mbps, while advancing 4 spots on fixed internet line speeds occupying the 163rd spot globally with a 7.37 Mbps speed.

Lost Privacy

After years of adopting the “Electronic transactions and personal data protectionLaw”, No. 81/2018,  the personal data of voters abroad were leaked from the Lebanese embassies, as political parties reached out to them during their election campaigns. 

In 2021, research conducted by SmartGov with the support of the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKF) concluded that most of the government’s platforms have not progressed in their development of electronic governance. For instance, hundreds of municipalities have no independent websites. Meanwhile, the unsecure status of around 80 government websites, 38 of which had requested user data for necessary services, suggests that the question of e-governance in Lebanon is not just a bureaucratic-efficiency issue, but also a privacy and security issue. 

In the same year, many different platforms were collecting the personal data of citizens and residents with the aim of combating the spread of the coronavirus, whether by the Central Inspection Bureau or the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, amid fears of misuse of this data. 

Government authorities have not automatically dealt with personal data with sufficient caution despite the enactment of the electronic transactions and personal data protection Law. This is attributed to shortcomings within the law itself, which limits the authority of overseeing personal data to the ministry of Economy and Trade and a number of other ministries and official bodies. 

For example, in order to collect data according to Law No. 81/2018, it is enough to get a permit from the ministry of Economy and Trade (Article 95), and in order to collect data relating to internal and external security, lawsuits, and health records it suffices to get a permit from the relevant ministries, such as the ministries of Interior, Justice, and Health respectively (Article 97).

Despite all of that, many institutions are exempted from having to declare how they collect data (Article 94), like associations, educational institutions, and commercial companies (while carrying out their activities), or if the concerned person agreed to the collection of their personal data. This means that objection to the collection of data becomes more difficult in cases where the person provides an uninformed consent to a company’s  policies. There is no right to object if the side collecting the data is obliged to do so in accordance to the law (Article 92), and there are obligations to present a declaration in accordance to Law #140/1994 (known as the eavesdropping law), which means that the law grants the ministries and security agencies major exemptions to collect personal data without any supervision or the right to object.

The electronic transactions and personal data Law does not keep up with the current personal data protection requirements, as the many experiences with different platforms have shown in the past few years. This law, which was proposed in 2004 and was not passed until 2018 needs plenty of work in order to match the modern laws and legislation that can be used as reference, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Based on all of the above, it has become necessary to pass an independent and comprehensive privacy and data protection law.     

In order to update our suggestions to various political stakeholders given the potential adjustments to the application and codification of data protection amid contextual changes, a 2024 report released by SEEDS for Legal Initiatives, with the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund, aimed to establish a comprehensive index of the Personal Data Protection Law in Lebanon. This work was inspired by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), issued by the European Union (EU).

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