Will increased censoring of Google, YouTube, Facebook and other websites by countries such as Iran fuel popular discontent in the Middle East? Your Middle East takes a look at the practice of preventing people in the region from accessing information online.
The Middle Eastern states that restrict Internet freedom the most are Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria, according to the Internet Enemies Report 2012. The report, published by Reporters Without Borders, also names Morocco and the United Arab Emirates as “under surveillance”.
These states block or monitor Internet activities because of morality, national security and to avoid or ban political discussion. And the trend is that both Internet content filtering and Internet surveillance are growing in the region.
“Censors prefer to monitor dissidents’ online activities and contacts rather than try to prevent them from going online,” said the report. “The police chief in the United Arab Emirates, for example, has acknowledged that the police monitor social networks.”
“It is a human failing. The security services no longer interrogate and torture a prisoner for the names of his accomplices,” the report explained. “Now they want his Facebook, Skype and Vkontakte passwords.”
Last week, Iran blocked access to Google’s email service, Gmail, as well as to the Google search page.
“This will backfire in Iran: censoring serious political content may only affect a small portion of the population, but when a country censors practical or popular content, it makes it far more likely that the population will rise up in anger,” said Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that “defends your rights in the digital world”.
She referred to an instance when Tunisia blocked nearly every video-sharing website, and then moved to block Facebook. “People literally marched in the streets and the regime changed its mind and opened the site back up.”
York added that banning Gmail would be the same as what expert Ethan Zuckerman called the "Cute Cat Theory” which meant that people would generally be complacent about censorship until it affects their ability to watch cute cat videos on YouTube.
For tech savvy individuals, there are tools that allow them to circumvent censorship such as proxies and VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, which use a secure protocol to encrypt users' data, foiling online blocks put in place by authorities. However, governments such as Iran are working to block illegal VPNs.
In Jordan, which has long stood out as a model of relative Internet freedom in the region, journalists recently voiced concerns when the government passed amendments in which the it can censor content and hold journalists liable for what they write. The new amendments not only require the country’s 220 news websites to obtain licenses by the government but also state that that website chief editors must be members of the Jordan Press Association, which is threatening the freedom of speech particularly in the online media.
“I think this is a huge blow to reform in the country, as well as a blow to the IT sector. Jordan ranks highest in terms of number of startups in the region and is home to companies like Google and Yahoo,” York told Your Middle East.
“I fear that this new censorship will chase those companies away and do serious damage to the IT sector. It's also, of course, damaging to those working so hard for political reform in the country.”