HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
Arabic Version
Cybercensorship: Its Various Forms
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Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates

The Internet offers protean possibilities for evading controls on the flow of information. In countries where there is no local ISP, persons can, for the price of an international call, dial service providers in other countries. If a web site is blocked, its sponsors or fans can change its address or "mirror" the same content at other World Wide Web sites. Local users can view web sites that are blocked by accessing them via free "anti-censorship proxy (ACP) servers." (48) They can also have persons who enjoy access to content that is blocked locally e-mail it to them as attached files. Wary e-mail correspondents can foil surveillance by using pseudonymous e-mail accounts or encryption, or by routing messages through a Web-based re-mailing service that "anonymizes" them by stripping information that identifies the sender.

But if the tricks available to users are bountiful, so is the technology on the other side of the cat-and-mouse game. Governments may not be able to stop, but they can certainly slow the flow of "objectionable" content and thus buy time to adjust to an era in which their ability to block or crowd out information is diminished.

State's can deny the public local access to the Internet altogether, as Iraq, Libya, Syria and, until recently Saudi Arabia have done. But neither Syria nor Saudi Arabia has gone so far as to prohibit possession of modems or connections to foreign Internet providers. Both Riyadh and Damascus have thus tolerated a limited and gradually increasing amount of Internet access rather than adopt the draconian measures required to prevent access to foreign ISPs, which would likely antagonize the members of the public wealthy enough to afford it.

Governments that presently allow public local access to the Internet have adopted a range of methods to regulate that access. The Global Internet Liberty Campaign divides these methods into four categories: Internet-specific laws; application of existing laws; content-based license (or contract) terms applied to users and service providers, and compulsory use of filtering, rating or content labeling tools.(49) All of these methods can be found in the Middle East and North Africa, along with extra-legal measures that also diminish online freedoms.

Laws and licensing terms. Tunisia has developed the region's most detailed Internet-specific laws. Tunisia also explicitly extends to the Internet existing press laws limiting free expression, something that few other countries in the region have done. However, the existing press laws of several countries, in their delineation of offenses, define "publishing" or "disseminating" information in so broad a fashion that no new laws are needed to bring Internet speech under their purview. Qatari Internet users must sign a contract with the Qatar Public Telecommunications Corporation (Q.Tel) pledging not to use the service to "carry out any activity which is contrary to public order" (article 3.2.4). Asked for the definition of this phrase, Qatar's embassy in Washington replied that while there is no "concise definite context of the phrase," it "refers in general to the necessity of commitment to the State's public policies and to the community's traditions and values."(50)

Filtering of content. The United Arab Emirates has set up a "proxy server" that denies user access to sites deemed inappropriate, mostly because of their explicit sexuality. Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia also block web sites, using a variety of technical means available to filter and block content. Blocking is easier to implement for governments that retain control over the national telecommunications network, including the international gateways. Nearly everywhere in the region, telecommunications remain a state-controlled monopoly. And even in the few countries that have allowed some privatization of Internet services, such as Egypt, the international gateway remains under state control.

In addition to technical and legal means, other government practices, including threats and intimidation, can create a chilling effect on online speech, just as such practices often do more than press laws to constrain what private newspapers and magazines are willing to print. Fears of government surveillance or reprisals, for example, can foster self-censorship in a newspaper, a web site, or an online "chat room." In Jordan, for example, at least two persons were reportedly summoned for questioning by the police during 1996 because of articles or comments they had posted on electronic bulletin boards or in chat rooms--forums whose contents can be read by everyone, including the police (see section on Jordan, below).

No government in the region, to our knowledge, has admitted to "eavesdropping" on e-mail, and Human Rights Watch has no proof that it is taking place. Yet given the technical ease of conducting this sort of surveillance--especially when all Internet access goes through a gateway that is maintained by a state-controlled institution-- and the fact that police forces in so many countries of the region tap the phones and open the mail of real and suspected dissidents, it is not surprising to hear fears expressed by Internet users in Tunisia, Bahrain, and other countries about the privacy of their electronic communications. Authorities monitor telephone conversations in at least thirteen countries of the region, according to the U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998, and in most they did so without legally issued warrants or judicial supervision. Those who suspect online surveillance often cite instances of e-mails inexplicably disappearing en route or taking two days to reach their destination. Such occurrences can be caused by snooping but of course may have other explanations as well.

Governments have also pursued old-fashioned forms of surveillance against online expression. In March 1997 Bahraini authorities detained a telecommunications engineer suspected of transmitting information to opposition groups abroad via his computer, which was confiscated. According to sources abroad, the engineer, Sayyid 'Alawi Sayyid Sharaf, came under suspicion not through high-tech surveillance but through the traditional methods of the secret police, including the interrogation of third parties and the use of informants (see section on Bahrain, below).

48. Brian Ristuccia, an American who set up a free, web-based anti-censorship proxy (ACP) server, <>, explained that his ACP works by creating an alternate namespace for the entire Internet. "This means that every site on the entire Internet is made to appear as if it is a page on my server....The ACP server is a very effective Internet censorship repair tool because it takes only one unblocked site to unblock the entire Internet." He warned, however, that if surveillance is being conducted of Internet users, their activities via the ACP server are not protected from monitoring. He said in March 1999 that the latest version of his ACP "makes it more difficult for proxy administrators to see what sites a person has viewed, because each URL is assigned a random time-expired token that only the proxy server knows the actual value for."

The Osiris ACP received heavy traffic from users in the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, Ristuccia said, but was being blocked by the Saudi authorities. E-mail communication from Brian Ristuccia to Human Rights Watch, January 7, 1999 and March 11, 1999.

49. Global Internet Liberty Campaign, Regardless of Frontiers, pp. 11-12.

50. Undated written communication to Human Rights Watch, received November 1998 and reprinted in Appendix C.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch