In the News: Hints of Net Liberalization in Certain Spaces, Increased Clamps in Others

On top of all the excitement at WSIS, there have been some recent articles examining freedom of information on the Net in the Arab world and beyond.

The UAE has recently legalized VOIP, the technology that enables Internet telephony.

Arab News, the Saudi Arabian English daily, has attempted to highlight the benefits of cultural expression on the Internet. The newspaper recently published an article on Jasad Al-Thaqafa (note: in Arabic), the Saudi website that serves as a cultural forum for such areas as photography, art, poetry, fiction, and journalism. While the expression of ideas on the site is not unfettered (forum supervisors monitor topics for appropriateness and may even ban users in extreme cases), such an outlet may serve as significant to many who feel constrained by local media. Interestingly, a collection of short stories from the website, entitled "The Spinning Wheel" will be published and sold in local Saudi Arabian bookstores. The original volume was slated to contain 34 stories--but half were rejected due to censorship and will not be published domestically. As a result, while the site is still subject to the widescale filtering that occurs in Saudi Arabia, citizens may very well have greater access to cultural information on the net than in traditional printed media.

Such access may not come without recourse. A Voice of America story reports that certain countries are seeking to quiet "outspoken bloggers" and curb political dissent.
While Saudi Arabia has only recently allowed access to some popular blogging sites, it continues to routinely block over 400,000 sites, undoubtedly including blogs. Providing access to such tools might be a step in the right direction, but the security implications for bloggers are far from clear. According to the Committee to Protect Bloggers, Iran has arrested over 20 bloggers for publicly criticizing the regime during the past year alone. The implications for not blogging anonymously in regimes that have such laws can be huge--advocates encourage bloggers to do so by using anonymous email addresses, secure proxies, and not disclosing any personal information in the process.

Another recent report indicates that most Net users in Saudi Arabia are prevented from visiting sites they seek to view. Of the estimated 2.2 million users in the country, 92.5% attempt gain access to blocked websites. With so many people trying to access filtered content, societal norms may not very well be in line with those of the authorities making these determinations.