Saudi Arabia: prime centre of content blocking

The Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) the Internet Services Unit (ISU)

Surveillance and censorship of the Internet, relentless in the kingdom for many years, intensified after the popular uprisings in the Arab world in 2011, cutting still further the only free space where non-official views, news and information could be published. The latest target in the Saudi authorities’ sights is the video platform YouTube, which has been blocked since last December. Six months earlier, the Viber messaging service was cut off.

The main Internet Enemies are the Communication and Information Technology Commission and the Internet Services Unit. Far from concealing their actions, the authorities openly attest to their censorship practices and claim to have blocked some 400,000 sites.

The main regulatory agencies

The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) has been responsible for regulating the Internet in the country since 2006, censoring thousands of websites.

The Saudi Arabian National Center for Science & Technology (SANCST) was established as an independent scientific organization in 1977 to promote the development of science and technology in Saudi Arabia. There was a change of direction in 1985, when the centre became the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). This is the backbone of the Internet in Saudi Arabia and the place where all Saudi domain names are registered. Since October 2006, the CITC has taken over its content-filtering role.

Citizens are encouraged to report sites with a view to having them blocked. These requests, previously centralized and managed by the Internet Services Unit (ISU), linked to the KACST, are now handled by the CITC, as stated on the ISU site. It takes just a few mouse-clicks for a user to report a site or a page to be blocked or unblocked.

Late last year, after an article was published in the newspaper Al-Hayat, there was a rumour that the Saudi broadcasting authorities wanted to create a new body to censor and monitor video content on YouTube and other sites.

Another idea under consideration was to require Saudis who wanted to share videos online to obtain a permit from this new agency and comply with its terms and conditions for the production of content. Only YouTube use compatible with Saudi “culture, values and traditions” would be permitted. It was not clear whether such censorship would apply to videos posted in Saudi Arabia itself or to all YouTube content. The head of the commission was critical of the article, but he stopped short of denying it.

The whole thing was tied together by the state-owned company Saudi Telecom Company (STC), which for long was the country’s sole telecoms operator for mobile and Internet technology before the market was opened up. However, all licences of private companies are granted by the STC.

Internet cafés are also monitored. They must have concealed video cameras and keep an accurate record of their customers and note their identities.

The licence – stamp of approval

Culture and information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja, published new regulations for news and information websites in January 2011 aimed at reinforcing Internet censorship and dissuading Web users from creating their own sites and blogs.

According article 7 of the regulations, online media, the websites of so-called traditional media and platforms offering audio and video content or advertising now have to register with, and receive accreditation from, the culture and information ministry for a licence that must renewed every three years. A licence is valid for only three years. An applicant must be a Saudi national, aged at least 20, have a high school qualification and be able to produce “documents testifying to good conduct.”

All these online media will also have to identify the company that hosts them.  According to the original regulations, the ministry would also have had to approve the editor of each online newspaper, who would be the guarantor of the site’s entire content. However, the minister scrapped this provision after an outcry. The ministry will now just have to be notified of the editor’s name. Its approval will not be required.

Online forums, blogs, personal websites, distribution lists, electronic archives and chat sites thereafter had to be registered. Bloggers were able to identify themselves “if they want,” but anonymity was clearly regarded as undesirable. Last month the authorities ruled that bloggers must use their real names.

Under article 17, any breach of these regulations will incur a fine and a partial or total block on the website concerned. Fines can be as high as 100,000 Saudi rials (20,000 euros). The ministry retains the right to broaden the scope of these measures.

Strict content filtering policy

A strict filtering policy is applied to any content deemed by the authorities to be pornographic, or “morally reprehensible”. Websites that discuss religious or human rights issues or the opposition viewpoints are also blocked.

Prohibited websites now include the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), and the sites, and Other sites have been blocked in response the Arab uprisings. In addition, there is increased surveillance of online forums and social networking sites, especially those that are participative.

The CITC announced in June last year that it had cut off access to the Viber messaging service, a free voice-over-Internet application, because it had failed to meet “the regulatory requirements and laws in Saudi Arabia”.

The authorities decided to target YouTube last December after the success of the campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia and of the video No Woman, No Drive” a parody of the Bob Marley song “No Woman, No Cry” by the Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh.

Last month, the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, reported the closure of dozens of sites that were “opposed to the values of the Saudi government” and that 41 others had been shut down on the grounds that they had not complied with legislation requiring them to be registered.

Cyber dissidents jailed

Bloggers who dare to tackle sensitive subjects are liable to retaliation by the censors. Last July a Jeddah criminal court sentenced the cyber-activist Raef Badawi to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. The founder of Saudi Liberals, a website for political and social debate that has been censored since its creation in 2008, Badawi has been held in Jeddah’s Briman prison since his arrest on 17 June 2012.

He was accused of creating and moderating a website that insulted religion and religious officials, including the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and violated the Sharia’s basic rules. Judge Faris Al-Harbi added three months to his sentence for “parental disobedience.”

Tariq al-Mubarak, a blogger and columnist who writes for the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, was arrested on 27 October last year after he wrote opinion pieces for the newspaper on subjects regarded as controversial in Saudi Arabia. In one of his stories published in its print edition on 6 October and headlined “It’s Time to Change Women’s Place in the Arab World”, he criticized the ban on women drivers. In another column published on 26 October and entitled “When the mafia threatens…”, he deplored the reign of terror in Arab societies that prevented people from fully enjoying fundamental freedoms. He was released after spending eight days in detention.

In late October, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair — Raef Badawi’s counsel – was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for signing a petition in 2011 that criticized the heavy sentences imposed on 16 Saudi reformists.

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