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Freedom under Watch: Under the Veil of Saudi Cyberspace

May 8, 2017

The following article is in a series focusing on countries that restrict speech online in order to prevent “social panic” or “anxiety amongst citizenry.” The series will examine Venezuela, China, and Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, digital life is undeniably pervasive and lively. Saudi Arabians are not only some of the most avid consumers of social media in the Middle East, but also in the world. Saudis spend some of the most time online[1] and social networking[2] than any other nation, with current surveys and studies frequently showing Saudi Arabia as possessing high percentages of Twitter and YouTube users,[3] relative to its number of Internet users.[4] Yet, this high social media usage appears at odds with Wahhabism and the ultra-conservative Saudi Regime.

Saudi Arabia, which Reporters Without Borders has declared an “Enemy of the Internet,” implements massive censorship of the Internet through content filtering software and a centralized Internet infrastructure. As highlighted by the Arab Spring, the Internet and social media have the ability to play a critical role in facilitating democratizing forces;[5] however, not only do social media and the Internet not provide a panacea for social change, they offer alternative avenues to control citizens. Saudi Arabia’s unique mixture of ultra-conservatism, massive social media consumption, and sectarian conflict all collide together in cyberspace with distinctive, and often times repressive repercussions.

High Internet Usage

Saudi Arabia’s large consumption of digital media is linked to the Internet’s ability to supply new entertainment, business, and social capabilities. In contrast to state-run media, the Internet provides more diverse and contemporary content. For instance, many YouTube channels revolve around social comedy[6] while Muhammad al-Arefe, a well-known Saudi preacher and scholar, has the most popular Twitter account in Saudi Arabia.[7] Also, social media provides a more desirable social space as it is illegal for unrelated men and women to socialize with each other in public.[8] Facebook has become a popular tool for men to find dates.[9]

The Internet’s ability to break barriers has also offered Saudi women greater independence. Saudi women are turning to Instagram to open their own businesses since women are banned from driving[10] and must have permission from their husband to open a bank account.[11] Instagram and other digital media offer women ways to navigate around these discriminatory barriers by connecting to customers without leaving their residences.

In addition, social media offers some potential for Saudi government accountability. There are a few small examples of disclosures on social media influencing changes in government. In 2012, the late King Abdullah fired his religious police chief after a viral video showed members of the religious body harassing a family in a mall.[12] And in 2014, King Abdullah fired his health minister after antagonism on social media over a perceived cover-up of a deadly outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Jeddah.[13] These realities present hope for activists and civil society in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi royalty has taken note of the influence of social media to weaken public trust and governance, especially regarding the stark contrast in lifestyle between Saudi royalty and Saudi commoners. Currently, Saudi Arabia’s economy is strained by an expensive war in Yemen, conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the rise of Iran, in addition to the failing price of oil, previously a consistent source of revenue for the Saudi government. The Saudi government has responded by cutting public spending driving up the cost of utilities, such as water and electricity, as well as the unemployment rate.[14] Despite this, experts and journalists believe Saudi royalties’ traditionally lavish lifestyles have continued with little to no change.[15] Saudi royalty may erect large walls and ask staff members to leave their phones at the gates to prevent access to Saudi royal’s lifestyle;[16] however, leaks do occur. Examples of such are disclosures about Saudi spending in the Panama Papers and on Wikileaks, the Twitter account of Mujtahidd,[17] as well as the globally viral image of a Saudi prince who booked a first class flight for 80 falcons, shown at the start of this post.[18]

Internet Governance

The Saudi government is not only cognizant of its citizen’s vociferous use of the Web, but the government had preemptively taken measures to control its online community. Before the Saudi Internet was publicly launched in the late nineties, the Saudi government spent two years designing a highly centralized system to control Internet traffic.[19] Initially, all international Internet traffic in to and out of Saudi Arabia was required to pass through a single control center near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital.[20] According to a Saudi government page, there are now three access points to accommodate for market liberalization and the increasing volume of data.[21] These control points essentially function as gateways to the global Internet. At these centers, the Saudi government uses software, supplied by Western technology companies such as Narus and Hacking Team,[22] to filter for content that is deemed inappropriate, such as pornography. Since the entirety of Saudi’s Internet connection to the world is required to pass through these centers, these filters are subsequently applied to the majority of Internet traffic in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to its telecommunications structure, the Saudi government created new regulatory bodies and legislation to adapt to the introduction of new technologies and platforms. In 2006, Saudi Arabia created the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) to regulate the Internet by censorship and content filtering.[23] The CITC regulates according to the Council of Ministers Resolution No. 163, which concentrates on material that is “incompatible with Islamic religion and national regulations,” as well as in agreement with “permanent security committee guidelines.”[24]

In response to the Arab Spring, additional legislation was added, likely aimed at suppressing anonymity online. In 2011, regulations were introduced to discourage users from creating their own websites and blogs.[25] These regulations require websites and platforms to register with and receive accreditation from the Culture and Information Ministry to be granted a license to offer audio or video content. Applicants for this license must be a Saudi national, a high school graduate, at least 20 years old, and able to produce “documents testifying to good conduct.”[26] In addition, online media will have to identify the company that hosts their content.[27]

Multi-national corporations present the toughest challenge for Saudi Arabia to control as information and communication technology (ICT) corporations provide such expansive services and often operate within a different legal system. For instance, it is much more difficult to control content on YouTube rather than in a local Saudi newspaper. Instead of removing YouTube content, the Saudi government arrests those who share “enticing” content. In 2016, this happened to Abu Sin, a teenage boy in Saudi Arabia, who shared a video of him interacting with a teenage girl in California.[28] The video shows two teenagers struggling with language differences and jokingly declaring their love for one another. Abu Sin could now face up to three years in prison.[29]

Despite difficulties in controlling larger platforms, there is precedent for denying access to web applications and communication services. In 2013, the CITC cut off access to Viber, a free voice-over Internet messaging service, because it had failed to meet “the regulatory requirements and laws in Saudi Arabia.”[30] Others applications have been constrained as well. In March 2015, WhatsApp calling was restricted[31] and in August 2016, Global Voices reported Facetime and Facebook messenger calling features have been restricted.[32]

Perhaps most concerning is a 2013 terrorism law, the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which bolsters the Saudi regime’s surveillance capabilities resulting in massive implications for online activity and activism. A Saudi press release describes terrorism as an act by an individual or collective intended to “disturb the public order of the state,” “shake the security of society,” “expose its (the state’s) unity to danger,” or “insult the reputation of the state or its position.”[33] The terrorism law also authorizes the government’s security apparatuses to track telephone calls and online activities.[34] The 2013 terrorism law is not entirely unprecedented, but rather re-enforces and builds upon a 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law, which shares similar language. One of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law’s stated interests is the “protection of public Interest, morals, and common values” and the law threatens to imprison those “defaming and inflicting damage upon others through various information technology devices.”[35] These laws and subsequent actions are affirmed by the Internet Services Unit’s (ISU) FAQ page which asserts it maintains a record of Internet users to be referenced only in the case of “misuse that exceeds the normal limit.”[36] The ISU is an agency within KACST that is responsible for network and Internet technology.

Filtering

The Saudi government’s censorship apparatus relies on a black list of URLs and the aforementioned software that filters for content by topic. Saudi Arabia, along with other Middle Eastern nations, has been known to use the American-owned SmartFilter, which contains over 90 categories to be used for blocking.[37] Examples of these categories are: provocative attire, general news, dating/ social, history, drugs, and extreme.[38] The SmartFilter software also has been found to block more than its determined categories. Research has found a women’s human rights site blocked for being categorized as nudity for having an image of a naked woman to show torture.[39] Additional content of blocked websites include: French bulldog breeds, Midwestern United States pork seller Eden Farms, a fan site of an upcoming Halo movie, and a German website promoting camel tours.[40] These examples are not intended to suggest additional blocking is clandestine, but rather to showcase that filtering errors do occur, resulting in greater scope of blocked content.

In addition to software, the government monitors and analyzes web traffic to determine whether spikes in online traffic are linked to unwanted attention of certain content. For example, Saudi Arabian women launched a campaign titled “Women2Drive” and posted videos to YouTube. The campaign spread quickly through Twitter and Facebook, resulting in over 11,000 signatures of support on the “Women2Drive” website.[41] The government responded by blocking the website after a couple of days.[42]

The Saudi government also utilizes another important tool for censorship, its own citizens. In addition to software that provides a list of banned URLs, Saudi citizens report websites by sending block requests to the state Internet censoring body, CITC. In 2001, a Saudi official reported CITC received 500 requests a day[43] and more recent estimates in 2011 cite these daily requests verge on 1,200.[44] Citizen’s reporting offer two key functions to Saudi government: cost reduction and credibility. The government and its censorship agencies do not need to spend as much time and capital on what the filtering software is missing as its citizenry can fill provide similar services. Yet perhaps more important is the credibility this brings to justify the government’s Internet censorship. By declaring its citizens as an essential component of its censorship apparatus, it allows the government to posit that its policies are merely a reflection of its citizens’ desires. A government page itself describes its citizens as half of its filtering mechanism.

As previously mentioned, multi-national corporations offer unique problems to Saudi censorship strategies resulting in new tactics to combat unwanted information on these platforms. Since the Saudi Arabian government has limited control over Twitter content, the government employs the use of trolls or bots to combat unwanted information and/or movements. Government trolls attacked women involved in the “Women2Drive” campaign[45] mentioned above in addition to spamming the hashtag, “#saudi_supports_egypt_billion_dollars” to stifle conversation about Saudi aid to Egypt.[46]

It is important to note that social networks are also not exclusively spaces for civil society advocating for government reform. The diversity of opinions on social networks may be best characterized by the only two Saudi Twitter accounts with over 16 million followers.[47] One is the controversial preacher Muhammad al-Arefe (dubbed the ‘Brad Pitt’ of Muslim clerics) who has openly opposed the idea of allowing women to work outside their homes[48] and was recently been banned from entering Britain because he was accused of radicalizing three British teens who are now fighting in Syria.[49] The other is Ahmed al-Shugairi, a preacher and influential moderate voice who reached fame with a popular TV show on religious themes.

Offensive Capabilities

Despite Saudi government’s censorship efforts appearing rather transparent, issues with controlling larger platforms such as YouTube and Twitter have led the government to rely on clandestine efforts to control the Internet. These clandestine efforts are largely fueled by the purchase of Western technology software from companies such as Narus and Hacking Team. Hacking Team, a Milan-based technology company, sells products that break encryption on emails, voice over IP, and other chat communication[50] whereas Narus provides the Saudi Arabian government the ability to block websites and voice over IP traffic.[51] The government uses such software to protect the national telephone operator for competition[52] as well as monitor its citizens.

The government’s increased abilities to monitor chat communications likely plays a role in the increase of Saudi authorities’ arrests regarding online activity and activism.[53] This has large implications for the potential to enable the already weak Saudi justice system. Court proceedings in Saudi Arabia routinely deny individuals basic fair trial guarantees in addition to passing sentences in closed proceedings.[54] The Saudi Arabian justice system not only benefits those in power, but makes it difficult to truly determine the extent of the regime’s crackdown on perceived cybercrime and terrorism.

Sectarian conflict is pervasive throughout the Middle East and Saudi cyberspace is no exception. In 2014, it was discovered the Saudi government used malicious software to specifically target Shia populations in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Researchers at Citizen Lab discovered Hacking Team malware was found in the Android application Qatif Today, which provides information related to the predominately Shia Qatif Governorate.[55] When installed on a phone, the malicious application grants access to email correspondence, text messages, chat communications in addition to control over the phone’s microphone and camera.[56] Access to the phone and files would be acquired without the owner’s knowledge.[57] Although researchers could not identify the individual or group targeted,[58] the historically tense relationship between the Saudi government and Qatif would strongly suggest intentional sectarian surveillance; especially when understood as a reactionary tactic to the 2011 and 2012 violent political protests in Qatif.

Conclusion

Saudi Arabia is at a volatile point in history. Foreign wars in Syria and Yemen, a drop in oil prices, and regional instability have created anxiety as to how Saudi Arabia will address dissatisfaction and dissent with the regime. The Internet is a public space, and like anywhere else in Saudi Arabia, it is closely monitored. Platforms such as YouTube and Twitter offer hope to Saudi reformists and activists; however, campaigning publicly for change risks being arrested as a terrorist or a heretic.

ICT products have helped break barriers in that they shed light on misdeeds by Saudi officials, empower female entrepreneurs, and even stretch the idea of acceptable humor in Saudi Arabia. However, they also highlight the type of system and culture that confine these advancements as well. Saudi women have been empowered by new platforms such as Instagram, but women have also confined by new technologies as well. But, Saudi Arabia introduced technology to text male guardians when “dependents,” such as children, women, or foreign workers, attempt to leave the country.[59] Saudi Arabia offers an important reminder that new technology can help break barriers, and also help reinforce them.

Endnotes

[1] “Why Saudis Are Ardent Social Media Fans,” The Economist, March 23, 2015.

[2] Deema Almashabi and Nereim Vivian, “Saudi Businesswomen Tap Instagram to Bypass Men, Attract Clients,” Bloomberg.com, August 17, 2015.

[3] Sam Gutelle, “Guess Which Country Has the Most Avid YouTube Users,” The Daily Dot, May 27, 2014.

[4] “Why Saudis Are Ardent Social Media Fans.”

[5] Phil Howard et al., “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?” (Project on Information Technology and Political Islam, 2011).

[6] Gutelle, “Guess Which Country Has the Most Avid YouTube Users.”

[7] Socialbakers, “Most Popular Twitter Accounts in Saudi Arabia,” Socialbakers.com, accessed February 16, 2017.

[8] “Seven Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do,” The Week UK, accessed October 15, 2016.

[9] “Why Saudis Are Ardent Social Media Fans.”

[10] “Seven Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do.”

[11] George Greenwood, “Five Things That Saudi Arabian Women Still Cannot Do,” The Independent, December 8, 2015.

[12] Sylvia Westall and McDowall Angus, “Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Adapt Message for Social Media Age,” Reuters, May 25, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nicholas Kulish and Mark Mazzetti, “Saudi Royal Family Is Still Spending in an Age of Austerity,” The New York Times, December 27, 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Brandon Friederich, “This Photo of a Saudi Prince’s 80 Giant Birds on a Plane Is Going Crazy Viral,” Maxim, January 31, 2017.

[19] Jennifer Lee, “TECHNOLOGY; Companies Compete to Provide Internet Veil for the Saudis,” The New York Times, November 19, 2001.

[20] Khalid M. Al-Tawil, “The Internet in Saudi Arabia,” Telecommunications Policy 25, no. 8 (September 30, 2001): 625–32.

[21] “General Information on Filtering Service | Internet.sa,” accessed February 22, 2017.

[22] Lee, “TECHNOLOGY; Companies Compete to Provide Internet Veil for the Saudis.”

[23] Reporters Without Borders, “Saudi Arabia: Prime Centre of Content Blocking,” Enemies of the Internet, March 11, 2014.

[24] “General Information on Filtering Service | Internet.sa.”

[25] Reporters Without Borders, “Saudi Arabia.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Lizzie Dearden, “Saudi Arabia Arrests Teenage YouTube Star over ‘Enticing’ Videos,” The Independent, September 28, 2016.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Reporters Without Borders, “Saudi Arabia.”

[31] “Saudi Arabia | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2016,” accessed February 24, 2017.

[32] Amin Jobran, “Bad Laws Are Contagious: Demystifying the UAE’s New Information Tech Law,” Global Voices Advocacy, August 3, 2016.

[33] Constance Johnson, “Saudi Arabia: New Terrorism Law in Effect | Global Legal Monitor,” web page, (February 4, 2014).

[34] Ibid.

[35] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “Anti-Cyber Crime Law” (Official Translation Department, March 8, 1428).

[36] “Internet Services Unit FAQ,” accessed February 24, 2017.

[37] “West Censoring East: The Use of Western Technologies by Middle East Censors, 2010-2011 | OpenNet Initiative,” accessed February 24, 2017.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004 | OpenNet Initiative,” accessed February 24, 2017.

[40] Bennett Haselton, “Smartfilter: Miscategorization and Filtering in Saudi Arabia and UAE,” The Citizen Lab, November 28, 2013.

[41] Wafa Ben Hassine, “The Crime of Speech: How Arab Governments Use the Law to Silence Expression Online,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 25, 2016.

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004 | OpenNet Initiative.”

[44] Evgeny Morosov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, First (PublicAffairs, 2011).

[45] Ben Hassine, “The Crime of Speech.”

[46] “Pro-Saudi Spam Bots on Twitter Try to Drown Out News of $1.5 Billion Loan to Egypt,” Marc Owen Jones, July 26, 2016.

[47] Socialbakers, “Most Popular Twitter Accounts in Saudi Arabia.”

[48] Irshaid Faisal, Nour Ahmed, and Mai Noman, “Meet Saudi Arabia’s Stars of Social Media,” BBC News, March 3, 2016, sec. Trending.

[49] Staff Writer, “Britain Bans Controversial Saudi Cleric Al-Arifi,” Al Arabiya English, June 25, 2014.

[50] “Hacking Team,” The Enemies of Internet, March 8, 2013.

[51] Aaron Sankin, “There Are a Lot for Companies Selling Surveillance Technology to Repressive Governments,” The Daily Dot, July 9, 2015.

[52] Ibid.

[53] “Saudi Arabia | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2016.”

[54] Ben Hassine, “The Crime of Speech.”

[55] Morgan Marquis-Boire et al., “Hacking Team’s Tradecraft and Android Implant,” The Citizen Lab, June 24, 2014.

[56] Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia: Malicious Spyware App Identified,” Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2014.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Marquis-Boire et al., “Hacking Team’s Tradecraft and Android Implant.”

[59] Luke Harding and Agencies in Riyadh, “Saudi Arabia Criticised over Text Alerts Tracking Women’s Movements,” The Guardian, November 23, 2012, sec. World news.

Works Cited

Almashabi, Deema, and Nereim Vivian. “Saudi Businesswomen Tap Instagram to Bypass Men, Attract Clients.” Bloomberg.com, August 17, 2015. 

Al-Tawil, Khalid M. “The Internet in Saudi Arabia.” Telecommunications Policy 25, no. 8 (September 30, 2001): 625–32.

Ben Hassine, Wafa. “The Crime of Speech: How Arab Governments Use the Law to Silence Expression Online.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 25, 2016.

Dearden, Lizzie. “Saudi Arabia Arrests Teenage YouTube Star over ‘Enticing’ Videos.” The Independent, September 28, 2016.

Faisal, Irshaid, Nour Ahmed, and Mai Noman. “Meet Saudi Arabia’s Stars of Social Media.” BBC News, March 3, 2016, sec. Trending. 

Friederich, Brandon. “This Photo of a Saudi Prince’s 80 Giant Birds on a Plane Is Going Crazy Viral.” Maxim, January 31, 2017.

“General Information on Filtering Service | Internet.sa.” Accessed February 22, 2017. 

Greenwood, George. “Five Things That Saudi Arabian Women Still Cannot Do.” The Independent, December 8, 2015. 

Gutelle, Sam. “Guess Which Country Has the Most Avid YouTube Users.” The Daily Dot, May 27, 2014. 

“Hacking Team.” The Enemies of Internet, March 8, 2013. 

Harding, Luke, and Agencies in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia Criticised over Text Alerts Tracking Women’s Movements.” The Guardian, November 23, 2012, sec. World news. 

Haselton, Bennett. “Smartfilter: Miscategorization and Filtering in Saudi Arabia and UAE.” The Citizen Lab, November 28, 2013. 

Howard, Phil, Aiden Duffy, Deen Freelon, Muzammil Hussain, Will Mari, and Marwa Mazaid. “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?” Project on Information Technology and Political Islam, 2011.

Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia: Malicious Spyware App Identified.” Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2014. 

“Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004 | OpenNet Initiative.” Accessed February 24, 2017. 

“Internet Services Unit FAQ.” Accessed February 24, 2017. 

Jobran, Amin. “Bad Laws Are Contagious: Demystifying the UAE’s New Information Tech Law.” Global Voices Advocacy, August 3, 2016. 

Johnson, Constance. “Saudi Arabia: New Terrorism Law in Effect | Global Legal Monitor.” Web page, February 4, 2014. 

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Anti-Cyber Crime Law.” Official Translation Department, March 8, 1428. 

Kulish, Nicholas, and Mark Mazzetti. “Saudi Royal Family Is Still Spending in an Age of Austerity.” The New York Times, December 27, 2016. 

Lee, Jennifer. “TECHNOLOGY; Companies Compete to Provide Internet Veil for the Saudis.” The New York Times, November 19, 2001. 

Marquis-Boire, Morgan, John Scott-Railton, Claudio Guarnieri, and Katie Kleemola. “Hacking Team’s Tradecraft and Android Implant.” The Citizen Lab, June 24, 2014. 

Morosov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. First. PublicAffairs, 2011.

“Pro-Saudi Spam Bots on Twitter Try to Drown Out News of $1.5 Billion Loan to Egypt.” Marc Owen Jones, July 26, 2016. 

Reporters Without Borders. “Saudi Arabia: Prime Centre of Content Blocking.” Enemies of the Internet, March 11, 2014. 

Sankin, Aaron. “There Are a Lot for Companies Selling Surveillance Technology to Repressive Governments.” The Daily Dot, July 9, 2015. 

“Saudi Arabia | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2016.” Accessed February 24, 2017.

“Seven Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do.” The Week UK. Accessed October 15, 2016.

Socialbakers. “Most Popular Twitter Accounts in Saudi Arabia.” Socialbakers.com. Accessed February 16, 2017. 

Staff Writer. “Britain Bans Controversial Saudi Cleric Al-Arifi.” Al Arabiya English, June 25, 2014. 

Westall, Sylvia, and McDowall Angus. “Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Adapt Message for Social Media Age.” Reuters. May 25, 2016. 

“West Censoring East: The Use of Western Technologies by Middle East Censors, 2010-2011 | OpenNet Initiative.” Accessed February 24, 2017. 

“Why Saudis Are Ardent Social Media Fans.” The Economist, March 23, 2015. 

 

This article originally appeared on the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies website on April 26, 2017.

Middle East Center

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