By Anna Nguyen, Silha Research Assistant
The government of Saudi Arabia engages in widespread censorship of the Internet, according to a recent study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. A 2001 Council of Ministers Resolution declares that "Anything contravening a fundamental principle or legislation, or infringing the sanctity of Islam and its benevolent Shari'ah, or breaching public decency," may not be accessed by Saudi Internet users.
Prior to granting the public access to the Internet, the Saudi government spent two years building a controlled infrastructure that funnels all web traffic through government proxy servers before the sites are transmitted to the public's computers. The infrastructure, completed in 1999, employs a filtering system called "SmartFilter," made in San Jose, Calif., by Secure Computing. The software is customized with blacklists, which filter specified categories of Internet content. A government agency, the Internet Service Unit (ISU), operates the filter and controls Internet access.
In May 2002, the ISU gave the Harvard researchers access to the computer servers. Out of the 64,557 Web sites the researchers attempted to access, 2,038 were blocked. The Saudi government says that the purpose of the filtering system is to protect Islamic values, and aims to block all sexually explicit content. The ISU Web site states that additional content, related to "drugs, bombs, alcohol, gambling and pages insulting the Islamic religion or the Saudi laws and regulations" is also censored.
The researchers found that blocked Web sites include sites with content regarding non-Islamic religions, women's rights, gay and lesbian issues, political criticism of Saudi policies, humor and entertainment. The list of highlights of blocked sites includes: rollingstone.com (Rolling Stone magazine), women.eb.com (the Women in American History section of the Encyclopedia Britannica Online), saudiinstitute.org (reports on Human Rights in Saudi Arabia), and idf.il (Israel Defense Force).
Anyone wishing to block or unblock a Web site may submit a form to the ISU for consideration. The Harvard researchers, led by Professor Jonathan Zittrain, have stated that they may investigate the nature and timeliness of these responses to requests for blocking and unblocking of specified pages and sites. Titled "Documentation of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia," the study and comprehensive list of blocked Web sites can be found at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/saudiarabia/.