Mideast censors limiting the Internet
|Sunday, December 30,2007 22:21|
|By HANNAH ALLAM|
In Iran, a large red icon pops up on computer screens. In Syria, there"s a discreet note from the filter. Other Arab nations display "blocked" in bold lettering or issue crafty "page not found" replies.
However the censors put it, the message is clear: You"re not permitted to see this Web site.
Governments in the Middle East are stepping up a campaign of censorship and surveillance in an effort to prevent an estimated 33.5 million Internet users from viewing a variety of Web sites whose topics range from human rights to pornography. As a result, millions of Middle Easterners are finding it harder by the day to access popular news and entertainment sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Flickr.
Five of the world"s top 13 Internet censors are in the Middle East, according to the most recent report from Reporters Without Borders, the journalism advocacy group that lobbies against Web censorship.
A range in rules
Only four Arab countries have little or no filtering: Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt — but Egyptian politicians are considering a law that would criminalize some activity.
At the other end of the spectrum are Saudi Arabia and Syria, consistently described by human rights groups as the most hostile toward the Internet. The rest of the region falls somewhere in between, with governments importing the latest technology to narrow the number of sites available to the public and drafting laws to curb online dissent.
The prohibitions have led to an explosion in circumventors, proxy servers that allow Internet users to bypass workplace or government filters. In cyber cafes from Damascus to Dubai, patrons furtively browse blocked sites and swap Web addresses for the latest "proxies."
New filtering systems
Last month, Syrian authorities banned several more sites, including the book and music vendor Amazon.com. The government reportedly uses a filtering system called Thundercache to block content from sites such as Blogspot, Hotmail, Skype and YouTube.
In Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the Internet is policed mainly by the owners of Internet cafes and by Internet users themselves, according to monitoring groups. In both places, Islamist militants have attacked Internet cafes, accusing patrons of looking at pornography or chatting with members of the opposite sex.
In Iraq, the U.S. military is the only official Internet censor — operational security measures prevent American troops from using some sites and commanders have shut down cyber cafes in areas where insurgents use the Internet to share intelligence and plot attacks.
More typical is the censorship that"s spreading throughout Arab states in North Africa. Tunisian authorities block several sites, human rights workers said, but they"ve also begun to hold the owners of Internet cafes liable if activists use their establishments to post critical news about the government.
In Egypt, the Arab world"s most populous nation and home to an estimated 6 million Internet users, the government offers cheap dial-up browsing to anyone with a telephone line and authorities do little or no filtering, so video-sharing platforms, social-networking sites, most opposition sites and pornography are all accessible.
But police have rounded up at least three bloggers and harassed many more in recent years, according to Reporters Without Border. Activists also fear more filtering after an Egyptian court last year ruled that authorities could block, suspend or shut down any Web site that could pose a threat to "national security," vague wording that could lead to criminal charges for dozens of Egyptian bloggers.
Iran"s hard-line Shiite Muslim leadership is another zealous censor of the Internet. The government boasts of filtering 10 million "immoral" sites in addition to all the major social networking outfits.
For the past year, according to human rights groups, Iranian authorities also have zeroed in on online publications dealing with women"s rights. Two "cyber feminists" were arrested in the past month on charges of distorting public opinion and drawing negative publicity to Iran.
The ultraconservative Saudi government blocks thousands of Web sites that deal with pornography, religion, politics and human rights. Medical students at Saudi universities have complained that they can"t even access scientific sites to study human anatomy.
Fed up with the growing list of banned sites, Hani Noor, a 25-year-old student, helped his cousin to create a Facebook group called, "We All Hope They Don"t Block Facebook in Saudi Arabia." As of Monday, the group had 225 members and a message board that focused on tips for the best proxies to get around government bans.
Noor, however, hit on an even better solution: He signed up for satellite Internet, which means his connection is now free from the long arm of the Saudi censors.