News / Science & Technology

Web-Based Apps Pose Tricky Problem for Saudi Monitors

FILE - A family takes pictures with their mobile phones and tablet computer at the 27th Janadriya festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 13, 2012.
FILE - A family takes pictures with their mobile phones and tablet computer at the 27th Janadriya festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 13, 2012.
Reuters
Saudi Arabia is seeking to tighten control over web-based applications that offer a freedom to communicate that is impossible for most Saudis in the real world, and may even seek to ban such apps altogether.

Saudi Arabia remains a relatively closed society; gender mixing is restricted to a tight circle of relatives and family friends, and direct criticism of the ruling family or powerful conservative clergy is frowned upon. Morality police patrol the kingdom's few public spaces such as shopping malls to enforce rigid social rules.

Cyberspace presents considerably more complicated challenges than a shopping center, however, and Saudi authorities are alarmed by the unfettered contact that the Internet allows, including for activists who spread news and information not covered by state media.

With just under half the kingdom's nearly 27 million population younger than 25, according to the CIA Factbook, Saudis are avid users of social media of all kinds.

“People use social media ... more than asking to meet in person. It's safer,” said a Jeddah-based activist, who like others interviewed for this story asked not to be named because he feared reprisals from state authorities. “We know they are watching us, but they cannot control us on social media.”

The number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia nearly doubled in six months to 2.9 million in July 2012, amounting to a little over 10 percent of the population, according to analysts Semiocast. By April of this year, the kingdom was the eighth biggest user of Twitter globally, accounting for 2.3 percent of all tweets, Semiocast estimates.

The kingdom now has the biggest number of viewers per capita of YouTube globally, according to the website, which has spawned a thriving industry producing homemade videos that is pushing at the boundaries of traditional Saudi programming.

These production houses are Saudi-run and alert to local sensitivities, avoiding politics and using satire to cover local news for example, and so Saudi authorities are turning a blind eye to their activities - for now.

Free and easy-to-use communication applications present a more immediate social - and commercial - hazard.

Tech-savvy young Saudis are increasingly moving away from traditional telephony provided by the kingdom's three mobile operators, Saudi Telecom Co (STC), Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) and Zain Saudi - the government has stakes in STC and Mobily - and toward apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.

The telephone and messaging applications allow users to circumvent strict state controls with a degree of anonymity. According to the website of WhatsApp, each user is able to create up to 50 group chats of up to 50 participants each.

“If you open the phone of any Saudi you'll find at least 10 to 15 WhatsApp groups - some groups have more than 5,000 members and send out a daily news round-up,” said a rights activist in Qatif in the restive Eastern Province, home to many of the kingdom's Shi'ite minority.

“WhatsApp is now used much more than email, because it's seen as easier and more secure.”

Breaking the law

For the Saudi ruling class, which runs the country according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, these are worrying trends.

“Non-democratic governments are terrified by the role of social media and the threats posed to their regimes by open and uncensored online communications,” said Craig Newman, head of the Freedom2Connect Foundation (F2CF), a New York-based non-profit organization.

The Saudi regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), said in March that communications apps, including Skype, Viber and WhatsApp, broke unspecified laws and ordered operators carrying these services to comply with the regulations without making clear how.

Then in June the regulator banned Viber altogether. Saudi newspapers a week later carried reports that WhatsApp would also be banned within weeks, though nothing has been heard on this since.

CITC did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but said in a statement that it was protecting society from “negative aspects that could harm the public interest”.

WhatsApp and Twitter declined to comment, as did Saudi Telecom, Mobily and Zain Saudi, all three of which have lost income as customers switch to Web-based alternatives. Skype did not respond to requests for comment.

The operator losses - and customer savings - are particularly significant when it comes to the country's large expatriate population using such applications to call or message home. According to the CIA Factbook, there are 5.6 million expats in Saudi, about 21 percent of the population.

Newspapers, quoting unnamed state sources, said CITC has asked operators to find ways to block and monitor the apps.

Respected U.S. software engineer Moxie Marlinspike said he had been contacted by Mobily and asked to build surveillance tools to intercept messages on Twitter and other services.

Mobily in May denied it had contacted Marlinspike, but the engineer gave Reuters copies of emails from a Mobily employee supporting his assertion.

Activists' tools

Human rights activists say social media and tools such as WhatsApp are vital to their work. Television and local newspapers, which do not deviate from the official line, do not cover rights issues.

“We're getting news out to the rest of the world any way we can - if we don't have secure communications then Saudi Arabia will go back to being the Kingdom of the Dark, where nobody knows what's going on,” said the Qatif-based activist.

Another Qatif-based activist said he was the administrator of six WhatsApp groups, which combined had more than 1,000 members. WhatsApp is preferred because unlike some other instant messaging apps, WhataApp has the option for only administrators to know the identity of group members.

“If they close WhatsApp it will be difficult to send group messages via mobile; individual texts will be very expensive,” said the second activist.

Experts say that banning the likes of WhatsApp will just push communications to other mobile applications, or possibly to the less convenient use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and Tor.

VPNs use an encrypted server connection, usually in another country, which makes it appear as though the user is actually in that location. Secure browser Tor is able to disguise the origins of user data by sending it through three servers picked randomly among 3,000 dotted across the globe.

Social media played a big role in nurturing and coordinating protests that ultimately led to the ousting of long-standing rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Saudi Arabia has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to avoiding similar unrest.

King Abdullah has ordered $110 billion in government handouts and welfare schemes, but activists who attacked the government on human rights grounds have also been imprisoned.

“There are people who misuse social networking and try to send false information and false evaluation of the situation in the kingdom,” security spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki told a news conference in February.

He later told Reuters that authorities did not want to limit Internet access on security grounds, however.

Some among the Saudi elite have argued that censorship is a  waste of time.

“This is a futile contest - launching a war against media, and especially social media, that are open to free expression is a lost cause,” Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire with a stake in Twitter, said in a March television interview.

But Prince Alwaleed, in his late 50s, is a rare liberal voice. The leading members of Saudi's ruling royals, now in their 70s or 80s, are experiencing a generational disconnect.

“They don't understand us,” said the Jeddah-based activist. “They have one way to control the kingdom - they say they guarantee our safety ... We ask for more.”

You May Like

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More