Open Source Censorship

82px-Censuraindex.jpgIn nations with strong Internet censorship policies, the government typically runs the effort to block unwanted Web content. China, for instance, uses its vast resources, both technological and human, to maintain its Great Firewall. But Saudi Arabia has followed a different path to acheive similar results. As Business Week reports, Saudi Arabia claims to rely on its citizens to recommend sites that should be blocked. The government reportedly receives roughly 1,200 messages a day, typically students and religious leaders, flagging offensive sites. Its Communications & Information Technology Commission (CITC) only has 25 people working on censorship issues although it does employ software to block clear-cut violations of its communications policy, such as web sites for pornography and gambling. CITC uses software from San Jose-based Secure Computing that offers a menu of 90 categories of sites to block.

Groups that monitor press freedom around the world suggest that Saudi censorship policies are “among the most restrictive in the world” in targeting criticism of the royal family and religion. Human rights group Reporters Without Borders has extensive coverage on Saudi Arabia’s censorship policies. For instance, all discussions of women’s rights are blocked. And, as Business Week notes, local blogger Fouad al Farhan was jailed early this year for advocating political reforms. While Farhan wrote under his own name, most of the country’s 2,000 bloggers write anonymously.

The CITC, however, suggests that its censorship has the imprimatur of its citizens who participate in the government’s efforts to ban pornography and unpopular ideas. It explains that only 40% of its citizens are concerned about its censorship efforts. Questions remain as to whether citizen participation in the work of CITC is, in fact, as wide-spread as the government suggests and whether our free speech values truly do have little resonance there.

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2 Responses

  1. Jason Mazzone says:

    My colleague Derek Bambauer recently posted at SSRN a draft of an article which provides a very interesting set of metrics for assessing different forms of filtering and censorship. One of Derek’s areas of interest is the degree of citizen participation in decisions to filter and he discusses the case of Saudi Arabia. The article is here:

    Derek Bambauer, Guiding the Censor’s Scissors: Assessing Internet Filtering,

  2. Moz says:

    My experience of censorship debates is that there will be a vocal minority in favour of the most draconian censorship (viz “anything I don’t like”). Some of those people have a lot of time on their hands and are usually the sort of people who will happily send dozens of messages a day. One per site, per day until it’s removed in all likelihood.

    So 1200 messages/day might mean that there are as few as 20 people participating. Perhaps even fewer if a religious organisation or two have official efforts (paid or volunteer).

    It could also be a single individual with a clue.