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

US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysia’s upgrade seen as removing barrier to country’s participation in the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Turkey, US Try to Establish Buffer Despite Differences

Coalition airstrikes in proposed zone would aim to drive out Islamic extremists, allowing targeted area to come under sway of anti-Assad rebels More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs