Ensuring that human rights and freedom of expression are protected for Internet users in the Arab world is the reason why the Social Media Exchange (SMEX), a Lebanese registered NGO, created Arab Digital Rights Datasets, an open data source which is aimed at collating and disseminating legal texts related to digital rights.

Jessica Dheere, co-founder and co-director of SMEX, explains, “After a brief period of optimism in the wake of the Arab Spring, we witnessed an increasing number of incidents in which governments were restricting free expression online. But no one knew exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t. We couldn’t point to the legal framework that governed this space, so we decided to map them.”

In a report entitled “The Crime of Speech”, Wafa Ben Hassine former Information Controls Fellow at the Open Technology Fund supports this view. Focusing on Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, her study reveals that, in each of these countries, politically motivated arrests of online activists are on the rise.

Currently, the Datasets bring together more than 140 legal instruments from 20 countries in the Arab League, including constitutions, laws, and decrees in their original version and, when available, in English.

The next phase will expand the data collection to all 22 countries of the Arab League as well as reviewing the laws which are in the datasets; adding new laws and draft laws; and collating judicial decisions. It will also identify key provisions in the laws and analyse their implementation with a view to identifying where the problems exist.

SMEX is working with a large network of human rights experts, lawyers, journalists and other individuals who have joined the project over the years. Once the data has been collected, it will go through a peer review process to ensure that entries are accurate and comprehensive.

SMEX will then develop technology to host the data, all of which will be in the public domain. The data will be query-able and interoperable with other datasets, such as those that track violations of human rights online. This new tool will be available in the autumn of 2017.

Once the data is online, SMEX will host workshops to explain how to use the data in different ways, such as in information visualisations, communications to the relevant special rapporteurs, strategic litigation, or in highlighting opportunities for policy reform.

Jessica Dheere said, “Our hope is that having this data out there will not only make the legal frameworks more visible but also will highlight patterns of emerging threats to digital rights online and give civil society actors and lawyers the evidence they need to fight against them.”

If you or your organisation would like to receive updates about the datasets, assist with peer review, or participate in the user workshops, please send an email to adrd@smex.org.