The internet over the past couple of years has provided individuals with vast capabilities of obtaining knowledge and information on a universal scale. It is perhaps for this reason that the issue of internet censorship has continued to raise increasing concern as new issues arise with each passing day. Despite all the publications, the topic still hasn’t been resolved as controversy increases over where to draw the line between maintaining moral standards and infringing on human rights. Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia in particular has become an issue of major concern to the citizens of the country. Saudi Arabia is the leading Arab country in censorship of the Internet. This task is charged to The Internet Services Unit which oversees and implements the blocking of websites mainly with pornographic and conflicting political and religious content under the directions of the government. The idea is to preserve the morals and ethical values of the society as well as protect the national security of the country. While this argument seems reasonable for some of the country’s citizens, most view it as an infringement of the freedom of the Saudis.
The evolution of Internet usage in recent times has led to the Internet being a groundbreaking potency in tyrannical rules (Global Internet Freedom Consortium, p. 6). The free interaction and exchange of knowledge, information and ideas has been viewed as a threat, rather than a blessing, by the Saudi government. The consequence of this is the imposition of strict censorship measures by the government, through The Internet Services Unit, on the usage of the Internet by the citizens of the country. The privacy of the innocent Saudis seeking knowledge or ideas in this custom-made data superhighway is exposed to the authorities and the consequences of this can be life-threatening.
This paper explores the argument against the extremely restrictive censorship imposed on usage of the Internet in Saudi Arabia based upon the following factual information.
Supporting points and evidence
In “Al Jazeera English: Interview with Hassaan Ibrahim”, Megan Boler discusses the problems of media in Saudi Arabia on the examples of Al Jazeera and Al Arabia. Thus, Hassaan Ibrahim states that “Al Arabia… has all the ingredients of success, but they are very limited by the restrictions of Saudi media ” (Magnan, Boler and Schmidt, p. 307).
However, the revolution of the Internet has made a great impact in enhancing the freedom of speech and expression. But according to the research held by Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, the authorities of Saudi Arabia managed to prevent access to many sites because when the authors tried to enter some pages, they were blocked (“Documentation of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia”). Apart from providing an easy and cheap means of communication, the use of the Internet provides an avenue for people to interact and share their ideas and views through tools such as blogger. Despite the numerous advantages of these tools, The Internet Services Unit has blocked them with arrests being made on any blogger who dares criticize the government or the Royal family. Is this a move by the government to protect its political interests or a violation of the freedom of speech and expression of its citizens? In December 2007, Fouad al-Farhan, a Saudi blogger who started a blog using his real name to criticize corruption and call for political reforms was arrested (Zoepf). This led to an outcry by human rights groups and the global media and Fouad was released after four months. This restrictive measure of The Internet Services Unit and the government thus demonstrates a clear violation of the freedom of speech and expression of the Saudis.
The Internet Services Unit restricts access or viewing of music and movies that in the opinion of the government is pornographic or immoral. In this day and age where people rely heavily on the Internet as a source of recreation and entertainment, this begs the questions ‘what exactly constitutes pornographic or immoral content?’ and ‘what is the criterion used to determine whether website content is pornographic or immoral?’ The right to entertainment and recreation is a basic human right, which is infringed by the extreme restrictive measures imposed on the usage of the Internet. Further, with the technological developments in recent years, the internet has become a major source of revenue as far as the entertainment business is concerned. The citizens of Saudi Arabia miss out on potentially profitable business opportunities in music and movie entertainment when strict censorship measures are imposed on the use of the internet. With the recent global economic crisis where making money is becoming increasingly difficult, this puts the Saudis at a disadvantage.
Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia limits the access of the citizens to information concerning what is going on in the rest of the world. The result of this is that the citizens remain in a cocoon oblivious of what is happening around them. Has Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia gone beyond an attempt to protect social and cultural values to the infringement of the citizens’ right to information? Everyone has a right to information. However, this right is not fully enjoyed by Saudis due to the extreme measures and limitations imposed on the usage of the Internet. According to the Business Week, Saudi Arabian Internet “censorship is considered among the most restrictive in the world.” (Burrows “Internet Censorship, Saudi Style”). The attempts by numerous groups to stop Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia has borne no fruits as the government continues to repress its people with unwarranted sanctions on the usage of the Internet. This is demerit of Internet censorship has slowly, but surely killed the freedom and rights of the citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Response to potential counter-arguments
The general understanding is that the Internet censorship, more so of sites and blogs that are concerned with political views and terrorist information, is aimed at ensuring national security. Citizens could use this information in ways that could affect the safety of the citizens and the country as a whole, e.g. through making of bombs and conspiracies against the government. It should, however, be noted that; curtailing of people from accessing such information could end up being counterproductive and detrimental to the safety of the nation. This is because the nation will be blindsided with respect to threats because of being oblivious to what is going on in the outside world.
With respect to censorship of pornographic sites and entertainment portals in order to preserve the morals of the citizens, it should be duly noted that more and more citizens continue to access pornographic and other ‘immoral’ sites with hidden identities. With the use of pseudo names, internet users who are well versed with software manipulation can still access the restricted sites without being caught. This thus begs the question of how effective internet censorship in Saudi Arabia really is.
Although the motive of ensuring national security and preserving the moral values of the Saudis is undeniably reasonable, the extremity of its implementation through internet censorship is oppressive to the citizens. Every person is entitled to freedom of speech and expression and has the right to access information and in as much as internet censorship may ostensibly protect the society, the implications of its implementation should be objectively considered. The strict restrictive measures on the usage of the internet are a violation of human rights which are universal and these impositions should either be removed or more subtle strategies adopted to achieve the objectives.
- Burrows, Peter. ” Internet Censorship, Saudi Style.” Businessweek.com. The Future of Tech 2008.
- Global Internet Freedom Consortium. Defeat Internet Censorship: Overview of Advanced Technologies and Products. USA: Global Internet Freedom Consortium, 2007. Print.
- Magnan, Nathalie, Boler, Megan and Andrea Schmidt. “Al Jazeera English: Interview with Hassaan Ibrahim.” Digital Media and democracy: tactics in hard times. Ed. Megan Boler. USA: MIT Press, 2008. 301-321. Print.
- Zittrain, Jonathan, and Benjamin Edelman. Documentation of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia. Survey Report. Berkman Center for Internet & Society: Harvard Law School, 2004. Print.
- Zoepf, Katherine. “Saudis Confirm Detention of Blogger.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 2008. Web.