News / Middle East

403 Forbidden: Silencing Online Dissent in the Middle East

403 Forbidden: Silencing Online Dissent in the Middle East
403 Forbidden: Silencing Online Dissent in the Middle East

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.

Internet laws

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.”

You May Like

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs