When Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” took the country by storm in January, one of the region’s most sophisticated censorship regimes came to an end. The wave of unrest that followed underscored the power of social media and the tools governments use to counter them.
Before the uprising, Tunisia was tied with China as the world's second worst online performer, in the2009 Freedom on the Net report, according to Robert Guerra, Director of the Internet Freedom Project at Freedom House.
Many Middle Eastern governments cite the need to preserve morality and traditional ways of life to justify censorship of religious and adult sites. But activists say censorship often extends to political content.
Weapons of silence
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O'Brian describes the online situation in the region as an arms race between those who wish to curtail information and those seeking to spread it. This high-tech war employs increasingly sophisticated technical and non-technical tools to block information on the Internet.
"There's widespread surveillance, there's cyber warfare and technical attacks... launched against Internet users, against some of the companies that are providing services in the region," said Robert Guerra of Freedom House. "And some of it is just old fashioned repression that's taking place."
Depending on the extent of censorship, says Guerra, countries in the region range from bad to worse. There are those that filter or block websites like Saudi Arabia, or engage in harassing and arresting activists like Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and others.
In the case of Egypt, activist and blogger Mohamed Khaled says police engaged in kidnapping and brutality of new and aspiring bloggers to deter them. The Committee to Protect Journalists confirms that police watched or threatened bloggers in rural areas or outside the main cities.
Online advocacy groups and bloggers say that, in extreme cases, authorities steal online user names and passwords and delete blogs - something Tunisian censors engaged in extensively before the recent ouster of the country’s former President and his government.
Blocking and filtering
The simplest censorship tools include monitoring and blocking of posts or entire websites like Facebook and Twitter.
When the Saudis started blocking content a decade ago, they blocked entire websites. In some Gulf countries, users would get a message informing them that the government had deemed the site in question inappropriate. In other countries, users get no warning and can't tell if their own computer or Internet connection is malfunctioning.
But CPJ’s O’Brian says censorship has become stealthier and more sophisticated in many Middle Eastern countries.
"That means you can pluck out one video from YouTube rather than banning YouTube entirely. "So now the question here is: Is that better censorship or not?" O'Brian asked. "At least in Turkey, individual Turkish users are aware that what they're seeing has been censored by the authorities. If you have a very subtle level of blocking, that means you might never ever realize that there's a huge swath of the Net that you're forbidding from being seen."
Filtering is done by keyword, IP address and domain name to intercept undesirable chatter and block access to external sites. Countries like Egypt did not filter and only blocked websites temporarily - until recently.
Faced with massive protests demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and his government, Egyptian authorities shut down social media sites and mobile SMS communication. Other countries followed suit as the protests spread to Yemen and Jordan.
Syrian bloggers writing to Global Voices, a global online community of bloggers, note that the official media has all but kept Syrians in the dark about the turmoil outside their borders.
Libyan authorities don't bother to block internal websites. Instead, they block Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that link citizens to external servers like Google's, effectively insolating them from the world.
Morocco does very little blocking and maintains a more open online environment than most in the region. Lebanon does not filter, according to Jillian York, OpenNet Initiative Project Coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, while Saudi Arabia does less filtering than Syria. Most Gulf countries filter out pornography and social content deemed offensive to Islam.
Much of the filtering is done using U.S.-made software.
"One of the more popular tools is SmartFilter, which is owned by McAfee, which is also now owned by Intel," said York. "And SmartFilter provides [a] Web database with over 25 million websites that can be blocked in over 90 categories ... so internet service providers (ISPs) can also create user-defined categories that then allow them to block websites that aren't in the provided database."
According to York, SmartFilter is used in Tunisia, Sudan, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
When asked about the use of SmartFilter in the region, a McAfee statement said the company "has no control over, or visibility into how an organization implements its own filtering policy," The company added that "we do not provide any categories that would allow someone to discriminate on the bases of race, religion, political persuasion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other personal characteristic."
McAfee says its software does not include categories that would allow someone to differentiate and censor political speech. Questions regarding the use of SmartFilter in Tunisia were unanswered.
York says these programs were originally meant for home use or school use to block websites from being accessed by children.
“But when they are used by a government, these governments can then use them to block any sort of material. And so... these companies are essentially deciding what is acceptable content… and then by selling their software to governments, they are essentially deciding that for the citizens of those countries," said York.
Websense is another filtering software used in Yemen to block websites and political content. York says when OpenNet Initiative inquired about this, Websense responded that “they do not sell to ISPs for any sort of government-imposed censorship," and " would not allow the government of Yemen to update their software."
But York argued that once the software is out there, it becomes easy for governments to find a way to update it.
When asked about the use of the software in Yemen, Websense unequivocally stated that if the Yemeni government is using Websense products to restrict internet activity, “they are doing so without a valid license and therefore are doing so without permission and illegally.”
Websense says if its products are being used in such a manner, it will actively seek to terminate any such activity.
Laws are becoming the weapon of choice in the Middle East’s Internet censorship arsenal, with several countries adding online publishing to their existing media laws, including Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
This growing trend, says CPJ's O'Brian, is being treated as an extension of existing media laws, which require newspapers and TV stations to register to acquire licenses, file mission statements and the like with the government. He says these laws are occasionally used to shut down or ban media outlets that publish content authorities dislike.
"The same goes ten-fold for… requiring people to register their blogs or their forums. Ninety percent of the people simply aren’t going to do it. And that means that effectively you suddenly develop the capability to shut down or declare illegal 90 percent of the communications that you’re seeing in your country online," O'Brian added.
Recent legislation passed in Saudi Arabia requires Saudi nationals to have a license before blogging, and prohibits non-Saudis from blogging. “These extreme restrictions,” says York, “apply to blogging about anything, not just politics or religion.”
Guerra of Freedom House says "governments in the region want to control how technologies are being used.” He says authorities recognize that technology is great for business, but are uncomfortable when average users start using it for organizing protests.
In truth, the Internet has taken the region's governments by surprise, exposing their often closed societies to the world. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s recent description of the Internet as a "vacuum cleaner," that sucks everyone in best reflects the official frustration in the region as more people go online to vent off about domestic problems. The Internet, added Gadhafi, "is laughing at us and damaging our countries."
Blocking online activities retards development and socioeconomic opportunities. The absence of the free flow of information, says Guerra, prevents understanding of the region and perpetuates stereotypes about the Middle East abroad. “In today’s world, it’s all about people connecting with each other,” he said. “And so there’s a great deal of potential for us to get a sense of what’s happening in the region.”