What is the future of the internet in the Middle East?

The past week has thrown out a couple of fun and serious stories and news reports about the internet in the Middle East. The first was Iran reportedly deciding to create its own version of YouTube in order to filter out what it deems to be inappropriate content posted on the world’s largest video-sharing network. There’s a screenshot from the Mehr site, which loads remarkably slowly for a site which hosts videos for viewing and sharing, below.

Will Iran's version of Youtube be as big a hit as the original?

Will Iran’s version of Youtube be as big a hit as the original?

The second story wasn’t as funny. The International Telecommunications Union had gathered its member states in Dubai to discuss a number of issues at the World Conference on International Telecommunications. The one which hit the headlines was internet regulation. In short, a number of countries from the Middle East and other emerging regions submitted proposals that would have allowed member countries to monitor and control data flowing through their respective parts of the internet.

While this is already happening in many parts of the world, the proposed resolution would have basically made it legal and proper for all 190 or so of the ITU’s “member states” to have the power to regulate the Internet to promote security, fight spam, et cetera.

A number of opinions and views can be found online on the issue, including interesting posts by technology historian Peter Salus entitled The UN and your Business: Why ITU Dubai Loss is your Gain and Why the ITU is the wrong place to set Internet standards by Tech writer Timothy B. Lee.

I for one am concerned about the future of the internet and online access. While internet filtering and domain blocking isn’t new to the Middle East (the Gulf’s telecommunications bodies block material that they deems offensive including religious or pornographic material) it’s clear that the past two years have opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to control of the internet. Governments in Egypt and Tunisia tried to close off access to the internet to stop revolution. That didn’t work. Gulf countries have legislated against online threats. As I’ve pointed out above Iran is building its own country-wide internet whilst blocking access to foreign-hosted sites that pose a threat to the Islamic Republic.

So where are we headed to next? How far will governments in the Middle East go in order to secure their own national communications networks? And is there anybody or anyone out there who will bring some common sense to the issue of web regulation in the Middle East?

While I don’t expect multinationals like Google and Yahoo (or even Facebook) to step up to the plate and say to Arab governments we will not regulate the web for you (after all, Yahoo and Google didn’t say no to China), I am hopeful that the region’s populations will become more vocal about their online rights. Egyptians and Tunisians have proved that they will demand and protect their new-found rights. Let’s hope others, especially in the Gulf, will begin to seriously think about what their governments are doing online and asking:

  • Who is watching me online?
  • What online data do they want and why?
  • Can I be jailed for my online activities? Do I have to self-censor my thoughts and activities?

What is the future of the internet in the Middle East? Are we headed towards a patchwork of national or regional wide webs aka Iran? Or will sense prevail? Goodness knows we need commerce and entrepreneurship to flourish in this region to generate more jobs and an open internet is essential to both. Answers on an email, an online comment, or (if your connection is monitored) a postcard please!

Are you up for some (more) government censorship and online monitoring?

Twitter, censorship and Saudi’s Hamza Kashgari

Two months back Twitter introduced its new censorship policy, which would selectively block tweets on a country by country basis. In its blog, Twitter said it could “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country”.

A month later, that new policy was put to the test. A young Saudi national named Hamza Kashgari tweeted a number of thoughts which were to cause a national outcry not just in the Kingdom but across the Muslim world. Realizing what he’d done, Kashgari deleted his tweets, fled to Malaysia and then promptly get deported back to Saudi Arabia. The full story can be read here.

Twitter argued that the change to its censorship policy, from a global mechanism to delete tweets to one where they are censored at a country level, would allow for greater freedom of expression. However, were Twitter’s management team and legal counsel thinking of political or cultural issues where legislation is already in force? One could recount laws on Holocaust denial or incitement to racial hatred as issues where laws in such places as Europe are clear cut; if someone in Germany makes a public statement that denies the Holocaust they can be prosecuted. Twitter’s thinking here is clear. That Tweet can be deleted in Germany, but it could still be seen in another country where the statement does not break the law.

The Kashgari case is different, and less clear-cut. Kashgari’s Tweets may have been less incendiary in a Muslim country such as Turkey which follows a less conservative school of Islamic thought. However, it was not Twitter who censored Kashgari’s tweets but rather the man himself who deleted his messages after receiving death threats.

The question is, how useful is Twitter’s censorship policy on a country-by-country basis without people actively monitoring what is being said online? Even then, with all the traffic on Twitter would anyone be able to actively monitor Twitter? Even if the company was using algorithms would Twitter be able to pick up tweets such as Kashgari’s which are offensive to thousands but which may not explicitly break the law.

If people do tweet a message that is deemed to be illegal or offensive wouldn’t peer pressure and public opinion force them to delete their tweets, as Kashgari did? In which case, what is the point of Twitter’s new censorship player. I’d like to see how their new policy would work in practice, as I am sure many others would do too.