Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat- With the increase in the popularity of the internet in the Arab world, many people believe that this was the victory over censorship, being able to express their opinion freely and communicate with people from the other side of the world without any obstacles. However, that victory did not last long, and was rather the beginning of a number of rounds, which ultimately led to success for censorship that has been able to control what internet users do and do not view online.
The second report issued by The Initiative For an Open Arab Internet by journalist Ihab Al-Zalaki, and legal researchers Gamal Eid and Sally Sami leaves no room for optimism as a result of the extent of obstruction of the websites in the Arab world, which soon became a trap to catch members of the opposition and troublemakers who pose a threat from the perspective of the authorities. According to the latest statistics, the number of internet users in the Arab world has risen sharply from 14 million in June 2004 to 26 million at the end of 2006. There has also been a significant increase in the number of Arab websites, however alongside this fact; there is also an increase in the number of sites that are blocked. The report notes the increase in religious websites; amongst the most popular one hundred Arab websites, ten of them have extremist leanings. This is not only as a result of Arab interests, but rather due to political inclinations of Arab governments that subject political, secular and websites for human rights organizations to obstruction.
Al Ayham al Saleh, an information technology consultant says that the censorship system that is applied to the Internet is the same as that which is applied to the press. The system is no longer a pre-emptive censorship as now it allows a user to post or send any information, for which he/she will be held accountable.
The report indicates that the meeting of the Arab Ministers of Interior in Tunis, February 2006, revealed that there was complete harmony between the Arab Ministries regarding the blocking of sites that “advocate terrorism”; under this pretext much of what governments consider to be in opposition to their policies may be included in this category, as long as there is no specific and accepted definition for terrorism.
In addition to the imposed local censorship is foreign censorship, under the same pretext of fighting terrorism. Al Ayham al Saleh does not believe that “spying” censorship on the Internet is not the limiting of freedom, but rather an invasion of privacy; every user is free to post what he/she wants, however, those who log on to the internet are being monitored and this applies to everybody, even the president of the United States.
The report provides the names of Internet prisoners in the Arab world, the charges against whom were related to posting editorials on political or human rights websites. The content of such editorials however can be presented through other media.
Al Ayham warned of the dangers involved in blocking personal blogs. A website called ‘Blogsbat’ that has been blocked in Syria contains 50 million personal blogs, that is 50 million entries unavailable elsewhere through any other medium! He states that the person responsible for the decision to block the website has “caused a disaster to the Syrian community,” not only due to blocking such an enormous amount of information, but also for prohibiting such contribution towards building human knowledge.
In 2006, one Syrian blog was the subject of much controversy as it would use caricatures to show the group’s position towards both the government and the opposition. It also posted information about the events of private gatherings of some famous personalities. The entries disappeared for a while, only to reappear later but without substance. It emerged then that a group of young men were in charge of the website.
Asked whether there is some form of technology that allows the identity of the internet user to be revealed, Al Ayham expressed doubt, indicating that identities are revealed through tattling or chitchat between friends. Regarding emails however, these are registered, nevertheless Al Ayham is uncertain whether there exists a cadre to read and analyze all of the information, thus intercepting emails is similar to tapping phones; he indicates that there are methods to protect the privacy of email users, the most important of which is “encrypting.” This is a superior kind of technology but is unavailable for two reasons: the first and most significant is the fact that the United States of America prohibits its exportation to some countries including Syria as it is used in international governmental and military institutions, the correspondences of which are privileged with absolute secrecy. Secondly, regional governments have banned the sending of encrypted messages and any individual who does so could be charged with “espionage”. Not to mention the fact that the engineering network in Syria does not allow the use of such advanced technology.
Despite the rigidity and the banning of websites in the Arab world, with the exception of Lebanon where the Internet enjoys almost complete freedom, many observers, according to the report, warn of the grave dangers that the internet poses to Arab communities as a means of communication and knowledge that is supposed to be available in every home in addition to other forms of media and communication.
Statistics show that teenagers and young adults are the primary users, the majority of whom use the internet for recreation, chatting, shopping, humor, and for access to entertainment clips and mobile phone ringtones. Most warnings are against pornographic sites and the moral danger it presents. There are those who see that imposing surveillance of the Internet hinders a complete openness to the world views, whereas others call upon governments to place educational strategies to reduce the dangers of internet access and to highlight its positive uses. In this regard, a number of internet providers have begun to offer a family service based on the principle of “filtering”, which insures the blocking of unsuitable sites.
Fateh, an arts graduate sees that “filtered” family net packages are a safe solution and encourages its usage. It is unacceptable and somewhat dangerous for a child to enter sites of a sexual nature and to be exposed to outrageous pictures, or even sites that post pictures of crimes or dead people. Fateh explained that five years ago he used to be an “internet addict” and would always be in chat rooms and visit pornographic websites. He would frequently engage in “romantic liaisons” on the web and tried to familiarize himself with the concept of cyber sex. He states that this was when he was unemployed but since finding a job (through the net) he will only visit websites that are work-related.
Ali laughs at the idea of “family internet” and says that Arab governments are one step ahead of these private companies as they carry out intense filtering and blocking of many websites; he asks, who determines what is useful and what is harmful? He does not blame the young people for visiting pornographic websites and wasting time on the internet. He argues that the responsibility is in the hands of the government, which prohibits and blocks cultural and informative websites yet openly allows extremist sites to remain accessible, as well as trivial and sexual web pages whilst youths [in Arab countries] are suffering from high rates of unemployment. They live in closed societies that are infected by various social diseases and that do not allow the individual to live openly and honestly, nor does it provide the opportunity to play an effective and real role apart from that of a passive consumer for all that the government imports. With this is mind, the Internet is considered to be the only window through which one can positively interact with the world. The increasing popularity of chat rooms is proof of the Arab youth’s desire to communicate with others from all over the world.
The clamor that came with the initial arrival of the internet has died down. Many illusions surrounding the internet have disappeared, allowing the internet to take its usual course amongst society.
Hamam, a 40-year-old civil engineer explains that he was also addicted to chat rooms for some time during stages of unemployment when he would stay awake until the early hours of the morning shifting from one forum to another. When he logged on to extremist websites, he presented himself as a fearless extremist denouncing others as infidels in defense of his beliefs, however, on atheist websites, he was a stubborn disbeliever. On websites of a sexual nature, he was the Don Juan of his time and when he visited websites aimed at homosexuals, he became a homosexual demanding his rights. Hamam justifies his behavior by stating that it is merely an overwhelming curiosity to learn about various groups and to test his power of persuasion.
Al Ayham al Saleh sees that the real and major challenges that face the Arab world include building a digital communication network similar to those existing in Europe, North America, and India, building an industry of service providers, centers for the data of security technologies, dealing with unique issues of Arabic sites that are not considered by foreign companies, and most importantly, creating clients for this industry by spreading the internet culture. Al Ayham says that it is regrettable Arab countries with the exception of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon are regressing rather than progressing.
In Syria for example, in its five-year plan, the state failed to look at the Internet industry and acknowledge that the network is in poor condition. In addition, service providers in Syria do not join with other networks or with neighboring countries. Moreover, the Syrian internet user remains subject to foreign companies and there is no intention to change the situation. The internet in Syria and the Arab world is dependent on internal and external censorship, thus the case is one befitting to the famous proverb, “Look but don’t touch.”