HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
Arabic Version
Saudi Arabia
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Encryption and Human Rights






Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates

In January 1999, Saudi Arabia began allowing its public to access the Internet through local service providers. It did so while promising to implement what would be the region's most ambitious plan to block the flow of "undesirable" data online.

Saudi Arabia has had an Internet connection since 1994, but restricted its use to state academic, medical, and research institutions. Saudi citizens and residents were free, however, to purchase computers and modems, could connect to the Internet through dial-up service to foreign ISPs, and launch web sites on foreign servers. But international calls to ISPs were expensive: to Bahrain the charge was U.S. $0.60-0.80 per minute, and to the U.S. and Europe $1.70-$2.10 per minute. Still, according to one estimate, some 30,000 Saudis were accessing the Internet in this fashion.(99) The Saudi public could also subscribe to local networks such as al-Naseej (<>), which provided domestic and international e-mail, links to domestic databases and "chat rooms" for its own subscribers--but no access to the World Wide Web.

Although state institutions were first connected to the Internet in 1994 and King Fahd had approved public Internet access in 1997, it was not until January 1999 that local ISPs began connecting ordinary citizens. This delay was due in large part to the self-proclaimed determination of authorities to establish a system for controlling the flow of information online.

Officials of the Saudi government and the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST)--the Riyadh-based state institution charged with coordinating Internet policy--declined to respond to repeated written, phone, and e-mail invitations from Human Rights Watch to provide information. However, they made their intention to exercise control over Internet content clear in numerous press interviews. Saleh Abdulrahman Al-'Adhel, president of the KACST, said in February 1998:

A standing committee has been formed and approved by the government to protect society from material on the Internet that violates Islam or encroaches on our traditions and culture. This committee will determine which sites are immoral, such as pornographic sites and others, and will bar subscribers from entering such sites. There are many bad things on Internet. That is why we have created a mechanism to prevent such things from reaching our society so that a home subscriber to this service can be reassured. We have programs, software, and hardware that prevent the entry of material that corrupts or that harms our Muslim values, tradition, and culture. We also created a "fire wall" or barrier to prevent other quarters from breaching our sites. That is why we have not rushed into providing this service. We first want to make sure we eliminate all negative aspects of the Internet.(100)

That objective was endorsed early on by Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers when it called for a fire wall, maintained by the KACST, to keep the public from accessing "inappropriate" information.(101) The council also prepared a set of broad and vaguely defined restrictions on Internet content and usage. Its Decision number 163, made public in May 1998, requires ISPs and users to refrain from "using the network for illegitimate purposes such as, for example, pornography and gambling;...carrying out any activities violating the social, cultural, political, media, economic, and religious values of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; sending or receiving coded information unless after obtaining the necessary licenses from the administration of the network in question; [and] introducing others into the usage accounts or briefing them on the secret number of the user."(102)

Authorities have divulged few details of the technical means and criteria used to block content. According to one press report, "Industry insiders claim King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology will simply provide a list of desirable sites, officially sanctioned by an internal committee. All other sites will be banned by default. In other words, the user will not be able to type in the URL of any site that he/she wants to visit, but rather only be able to pick from an officially sanctioned list."(103) If accurate, this would be the world's most restrictive regime of web-site filtering. The London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that the Saudis planned to contract with U.S. firms to bolster their censorship efforts by furnishing on a continuous basis the addresses of web sites deemed offensive.(104)

Saudi Arabia allows private ISPs. In November 1998 the government approved applications from some forty companies seeking to provide Internet services. However, all ISPs operating in the Kingdom are to be linked to a main server at the KACST, which has the country's sole gateway to the World Wide Web.(105) This structure would certainly facilitate any possible efforts by the government to monitor and limit Internet use and content.

Two months after local ISPs began offering access, Al-'Adhel affirmed that the KACST was "blocking undesirable web sites" by using what he called "very fast computer programs." He denied that the KACST had prohibited any applications, such as chat services--"unless [they were] linked to pornographic sites."(106)

Although official explanations of content filtering have focused on materials deemed offensive to conservative Muslim sensibilities, Saudi blocking apparently extends to political sites. In early 1999, the site of at least one exiled dissident group, the Committee against Corruption in Saudi Arabia (<www.saudhouse. com>), was reportedly blocked.

Users who attempt to access banned sites reportedly receive warnings on their computer screens that their access attempts are being logged.(107) Saudi authorities have also tried to thwart user efforts to circumvent censorship. The URL of a popular web-based anti-censorship proxy server, Osiris, is blocked in the Kingdom, along with at least three "mirror" sites, according to Brian Ristuccia, who manages the site.(108) And a web site offering anonymizing services, <www.anonymizer. com>, is also blocked, according to the company's president, Lance Cottrell.(109)

The pricing structure for Internet accounts that was announced by the KACST for ISP charges appears moderate to high, depending on whether the ISPs choose to offer rates closer to the low or high end of the permissible range set by the KACST. Saudi newspapers on November 10, 1999 quoted KACST officials saying they had agreed to a minimum ISP charge of 1.5 riyals an hour (1 riyal equals U.S.$0.27) and a maximum of 4.5 riyals, along with a fixed monthly charge of between 100 and 150 riyals. An additional dial-up charge of 4.5 riyals per hour would be paid to Saudi Telecom.(110) (Saudi Telecom is a state monopoly, although the first steps toward privatizing it were taken in 1998.) Thus, a light user, one who spends five hours online per month, would pay a monthly rate of between U.S. $36-$44.

99. "Saudi Arabia ready to cruise the information superhighway," Agence France-Presse, July 15, 1998.

100. Quoted in 'Ukaz newspaper, February 24, 1998, as reported in FBIS, February 27, 1998.

101. The Mosaic Group, The Global Diffusion of the Internet Project: An Initial Inductive Study, March 1998, p. 216, or <>. An updated version, dated February 1999, of the Inductive Study's chapter on Saudi Arabia can be found at <>. The term "fire wall" connotes various tools that restrict users' access to online data, either in proprietary sites or on the Internet. It can be set up as a security device to prevent unauthorized access to computer systems or as a censorship device to block user access to online materials that a government or fire-wall operator seeks to place off-limits.

102. Quoted in Al-Jazira newspaper, May 6, 1998, as reported in FBIS, May 12, 1998.

103. IT News, November 4, 1998, < newsnov0198.html>.

104. "Internet Service in the Arab World," Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 4, 1998, as reported in FBIS, October 29, 1998.

105. The regulations on ISPs forbid them from establishing any linkage to the Internet except via the KACST. The rules were published in the May 6, 1998 al-Jazira daily, as reported in FBIS, May 12, 1998.

106. Nasser Salih al-Sarami, "Problems and Possibilities; Internet in the Kingdom," Saudi Gazette, March 13, 1999.

107. Jehl, "The Internet's 'Open Sesame,'" New York Times.

108. E-mail communication from Brian Ristuccia to Human Rights Watch, January 7, 1999 and March 11, 1999.

109. Cottrell, "Commercial Anonymity."

110. "Saudi Sets Limits to Internet Provider Charges," Reuters, November 10, 1998.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch