Helmi Noman has worked with the Open Net Initative on government filtering of the web in the Arab world. In a talk yesterday at the Berkman Center based on his extensive research on the Internet in the Arab world, he offered an overview of the spread of the net in the Arab world and observations on states’ abilities to control the flow of information:
While adoption of the Internet worldwide has been amazingly fast (in comparison to technologies like television and telephone), it’s still reached only 4% of the population across the Arab world. Roughly 12 million people have access to the net, but they’re concentrated in urban areas. In Yemen, 60% of users are concentrated in Saana… though only 25% of the population of the country as a whole is based in urban areas. He suggests there are three different types of digital divides one can see in the Arab world:
– Countries with no or little ICT access
– Countries with a gap between potential and actual ICT use
– Countries with gaps between regions of high and low ICT use
Helmi defines power as “the capacity to regulate activity within a territory” – in the case we’re considering, power means the capacity to regulate the flow of information. This power is rapidly eroding in the Arab world as non-state actors, empowered by the internet, are creating and sharing information. This leads to the abandonment of state media – if people can get information from sources other than the government, they will.
In the Arab world, Helmi tells us, the web is seen as a giant xerox machine – it’s possible to make unlimited, perfect copies of a piece of writing, instantaneously, and share them with the whole world. (This strikes me as a pre read-write web understanding of the web, but that may well be the dominant paradigm at present.) The availability, accessibility and control over this information leads to a sense of freedom in the Arab world.
Who are the folks using this giant xerox? Helmi gives us a quick tour of some of his favorites, and some he merely finds most interesting:
My friends Manal and Alaa, open source enthusiasts and political activists based in Cairo.
Baheyya, an anonymous Egypt-focused blog known for posting political photos not shown in the mainstream media.
Lamp of Liberty, a website started by the Cato institute, which provides Arabic translations of 18th century European and American thinkers on democracy. Their slogan: “In the Arab world, the Enlightenment is going online”
On the other side of issues (!) is Lewis Attiyatullah, a jihadi writer. Helmi explains that no one knows who he is, but his writings are incredibly popular. Christian Science Monitor believes he’s Saudi, but others have offered other possible origins.
Helmi tells us the story of “Banat al Riyadh” – “The Girls of Riyadh”, a new novel by Rajaa al Sanea, a female Saudi novelist. The book talks about the lives and loves of four upper-class Saudi girls – roughly analagous to the US TV show “Sex in the City”, perhaps. The book has been banned in Saudi Arabia, but it’s accessible via the web… a violation of copyright, but evidence that controlling the flow of information by blocking paper books from entering the country is not as easy as it used to be.
Governments are trying to get into the game by replicating content online – the Yemen News Agency, for instance, takes the content printed in government-backed newspapers and makes it available online. Fat lot of good it does them – Helmi’s studies show that “trustworthiness” of news sources is correlated to their trustworthiness, expertise… and most importantly, to them having no government affiliation. As soon as a site is connected to the government propoganda apparatus, it loses believability in the eyes of the Internet-using public.
Helmi studied a set of Arabic forums to get a sense for what Arab internet users were choosing to speak about. Analyzing 338 web-based forums, the most popular topic was Islam-centered discussions (27% of all discussions), followed by conversations about computers and entertainment. The distribution on Yahoo! Groups was radically different. 42% of forums focused on sexual themes, followed by Islam and entertainment. The explanation?
While many Arab states can block web-based forums, it’s very difficult to filter email discussions – because the Yahoo! Groups can deliver content via email, they’re functionally unfiltered… which means people can use them to talk about sex.
While filtering is relatively widespread in the Arab world, users are becoming more adept at evading those filters. Most sites that post political content, Helmi tells us, link to tools like JAP or lists of anonymous proxies to help users gain access from countries with strong filtering. Others are finding ways to bring in VSAT dishes that allow them unfettered access to the Internet. Checking the “history” files on web browsers in cybercafes in the region, Helmi reports that many of the sites listed are sites that are on blacklists.
This ability to access blocked information and to speak anonymously, Helmi believes, is part of a major shift in the Arab world, allowing people to publish counter-versions of government stories. If state control isn’t crumbling, it is, at the very least, leaking thanks to the Internet.
I thought Helmi’s talk was terrific and am very grateful for his research, especially the research on forums, but I think he’s a bit of a cyber-optimist as regards online speech. While it’s getting easier to speak online, this speech can have serious offline consequences. Bloggers from Tunisia, Egypt and Iran have been detained based on the content of their blogs. While there are techniques to blog anonymously, almost all are ineffective if you’re subject to real-world surveillance – i.e., I can show you how cover your tracks as a blogger using encrypted mail and a proxy, but that’s not much help if someone’s watching you type your blogpost through your window. I remember a recent conversation with an activist in the Middle East: I asked him whether he encrypted his email, and he responded, “They follow me down the street as soon as I leave my office – having them read my email is the least of my worries.”
My concern – as the internet weakens state control over the flow of information, it’s possible that states will respond by tightening control over the movement of people who choose to share politically unpopular information. While I’m thrilled that proxies are on the rise and more users are able to find and publish controversial content, I don’t think an analysis of information freedom in a country is accurate without considering the possible negative consequences of exploring that freedom.