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

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora