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Saudi Arabia leads other Arab countries in internet censorship by blocking website content from pornography, politics, entertainment, humor and religion among others (Black 203). Internet is heavily censored using “sophisticated” filtering system run by Internet Services Unit (ISU) that is based at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh.
Western country companies such as Secure Computing and Webscenes, which come from countries that do not censor internet, mainly provide the software for internet filtering. The idea is to block “immoral” websites to protect the society, but Stein says that this apparently sophisticated filtering system is quite easy to dodge by using proxy servers.
This censorship came into effect in 2001 after the Council of Ministers passed resolution banning internet users within the country from publishing or accessing certain materials on the internet. The censorship is charged to the ISU, which, manage the high-speed data links connecting the country to the rest of the world (Global Internet Freedom Consortium 6).
The users in the country subscribe to local service providers who in turn get this connection from the ISU approved central proxy servers. What happens when a user requests a URL address that is blacklisted in the country is that, he/she is directed to a page informing him categorically that access to the page requested is denied, and the government-filtering regime is explained and the reasoning behind it?
It also gives a chance to the user to request that some sites be blocked or unblocked (Boler 113). This paper will discuss what different writers think about internet censorship in Saudi Arabia and what people in this country respond to the filtering.
This topic is appealing to me in that internet use has revolutionalised the world with information at the fingertips and communication has become extremely easy and efficient. My interest is in understanding internet censorship and the rationalization behind it and the implication to freedom of speech. My assumption is that internet use in Saud Arabia is only restricted in matters of pornography. The research question is to establish the scope of internet filtering in Saudi Arabia.
Scope of censorship
Jonathan Zittrain discusses the scope of internet censorship in Saudi Arabia and Benjamin Edelman, professors at Harvard Law School, in their report ‘Documentation of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia’ published in 2004 by the Harvard Law School.
The report discusses the results of a survey carried out by the Harvard Law School to empirically, determine the scope and invasiveness of internet filtering in Saudi Arabia by attempting to access around 60,000 web pages on different topics that have been prelisted (Zittran and Edelman 341). The authors found out that, 2,038 pages in their list are blocked and covers topics that include religion, health, education, reference, humor and entertainment.
The authors contend that their list of blocked pages in the country is not a perfect representation of content blocked and, therefore, drawing a clear conclusion about the Saudi blocking system is not possible. Zittrain and Edelman say that internet filtering is done by the ISU, a government outfit that implements internet filtering as outlined by the 2001 Council of Ministers Resolution.
Local internet service providers connect to the international internet through a Central array of proxy servers, which are under ISU. If a user, requests a blocked page, the ISU administrative web informs him that access is denied on that page, and reasons for doing this are stated.
These are based on Qur’an stipulation of preserving Islamic values by filtering, materials that contradict to Islamic beliefs and culture. In addition to sexually explicit material, ISU web list other prohibited material on drugs, bombs, alcohol, gambling and material that insults Islam religion and Saudi Arabia laws and regulations. Apart from sexually explicit material, the authors say that blocked materials are blocked on the direction of the security bodies in the country.
Among the 2038 blocked pages the authors established, 246 of them were on religion, 31 on health and specifically on drugs and abortion, 81 on humor, 251 on entertainment that is music and movies, 13 related to the gay community and 28 relating to swim suits, lingerie, modeling and other non pornographic human images. Other pages blocked were on Middle East politics, organizations, or groups, those containing hostile coverage of Saudi Arabia (Boler 98).
In addition, services on circumventing filtering restrictions, sites on information concerning women, some education and reference materials and of course pornography. This source was able to answer my question on the scope of filtering and the stakeholders involved. In addition, the materials blocked that are not only about pornography and religion but also a wide array of materials on some topics that are helpful to a society. The question that remains is how Saudis think of this and whether there ways of circumventing this filtering.
Jennifer Lee, reported in The New York Times, in her article Companies Compete to Provide Saudi Internet Veil” published in November 19, 2003. She discusses the scope of internet censorship in Saudi Arabia. Lee reports of the competition by US companies to provide Saudi Arabia with software that blocks access to websites, which the government deems inappropriate for its users.
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She quotes several software companies response to the war to win Saudi Arabia censor contract. She says that Saudi Arabia block pornographic sites that are making powerful business in uncensored countries around the world. Others that are blocked are those security agencies feel are sensitive for political or religious reasons. Once, the government buys the software, it customizes it completely. The company providing it has no control over how it is used.
Lee continues to say that Saudi Arabia is the most active user of censorship among the Muslim countries where it uses a Royal decree to channel all public internet traffic to and from the country through a single control center, ISU. Among the blocked website are Committee for Defense of Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. Those sites, which provide the history of the country and with mild political connotations, are blocked.
The people of Saudi Arabia respond to internet filtering by dialing up foreign internet service providers, use websites that hide the user’s identity or circumvent the filtering by using pseudo names in websites that are also circumventing the filtering system. It is no wonder that together with Egypt the country has the highest number of blogger many of them women using pseudo names. Lee reports that an official, Dr. Hajery, says that some Saudis are instrumental in the blockage of sites by reporting them to the ISU.
He says that his staff receives around 500 suggestions a day and around 100 requests a day to remove from the black list for wrong characterization but in many cases, this is not granted, as there is no mechanism for compelling the government to do so (Stein 118). This article has shed light on my assumption that human rights groups’ sites are blocked and Saudis are not allowed to engage on political debates online since these blogs are blocked.
The article further proves that the country deeply censors its internet and media in general for society’s sake yes but also for political reasons. The question that arises is whether keeping people ignorant is helpful to the society in the sense “what you do not know will not hurt you” or simply it is a selfish way of controlling people opinions by the government. Lee articulates most of the things outlined by Zittrain and Edelman.
The authors of the sources above are trying to establish the scope of internet censorship in Saudi Arabia. They agree that internet filtering to block pornographic sites and politically charged websites is suitable for a society and national security.
However, what has been implemented by Saudi Arabia clearly goes beyond the need to protect society from sexual exploitation and security interests (Stein 217). The contentious issue here is that Saudi Arabia is curtailing the freedom of speech among its population and wants its population to remain ignorant which goes against human rights, which are universal.
The ordinary Saudis think that their government is protecting their social and cultural values, and from insecurity, that is why they report sites for blocking while many others still to access the blocked sites and contribute views through pseudo names. What the Saudis do not consider is that the government is curtailing their freedom of speech and information. What the stakeholders here have in common is protecting their won interests (Lee 59).
The government wants no dissent from the people, while the companies want to make money from their software, and the difference is in their values. My assumption have now been proven that indeed internet censorship is deep in Saud Arabia, and goes beyond protecting society values to violation of human rights. Now that, I have established the scope of internet censorship, the question is whether this has been effective and how effective that is.
Black, Ian. “Saudia Arabia leads Arab regimes in internet censorship.” The Guardian 30 June 2010: 2.
Boler, Megan. Digital Media and democracy: tactics in hard times. USA: MIT Press, 2008.
Global Internet Freedom Consortium. Defeat internet censorship: overview of advanced technologies and products. White Paper. USA: Global Internet Freedom Consortium, 2007.
Lee, Jennifer. “Companies Compete to provide Saudi internet veil.” The New York Times 19 November 2003: 1A.
Stein, Sam. “Rick Scott tied to internet censorship in Iran and Saudi Arabia.” Huffington Post 12 May 2009: 3.
Zittrain, Jonathan and Edelman, Benjamin. Documantation of internet filtering in Saudi Arabia. Survey Report. USA: Havard Law School, 2004.