Blocked or Not Blocked? Lessons from an Intriguing “Filtering” Instance

Determining whether a Web site is blocked by a state filtering regime is sometimes a complicated issue that goes beyond finding out whether the site is simply accessible or inaccessible, and requires a multi-disciplinary approach, which ONI has been uniquely employing in its research.

The story below is a good example of the issues involved in investigating Internet censorship cases.

The Web site of the Egyptian Association for Change – U.S. Chapter ( has been inaccessible from Saudi Arabia since it went live last week. The Association, according to its Web site is “a group of Egyptians and Americans, concerned and committed to Egypt’s democratic, political, social, and economical reforms”. The group proclaimed that they have joined the National Assembly for Change, an Egyptian group that supports Mohamed Elbaradei, the Nobel Prize laureate former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is expected to run for the presidency in Egypt. (The Web site of this group ( was found accessible from Saudi Arabia).

The inaccessible of the Web site from Saudi Arabia has been picked up by advocacy and freedom of speech groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. The Cairo-based the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported it as a filtering incident and wondered why the Saudi authorities “blocked” a Web site that does not contain any material related to Saudi Arabia, violent or pornographic materials.

Our investigation reveals that the site is indeed inaccessible from Saudi Arabia. However, even though there have been examples of regimes in the Middle East blocking each other’s bad boys, we cannot establish for sure that the Web site is in fact being targeted by the Saudi filtering regime due to a domain mapping issue.

The site's domain name ( points to a subdirectory hosted by a Web site run by another Egyptian group called Ahl Alquran

The Web site of Ahl Alquran (Arabic for “People of the Quran”) belongs to an Egyptian religious and political group that promotes the belief that Prophet Mohammed's sayings (known as Hadith) are not a legitimate source of Islamic law (i.e., the Quran is the sole legitimate source of Islamic teaching). This school has an unorthodox approach to Islam and thus their Web site has indeed been blocked by the Saudi censors for the past few year like many other Web sites that espouse alternative views of Islam. (See ONI latest report on Saudi Arabia for more information on this issue.

So this story highlights two issues: It is a classical example of oppositional groups providing Internet support to each other, but more importantly it illustrates that close examination of a Web site filtering case and applying a multidisciplinary approach can reveal useful information. The information can then be used to determine whether the case at hand is indeed a clear-cut filtering case.

Advocacy groups and the media often take inaccessibility of a Web site as sufficient evidence of deliberate filtering. This is not always reliable. Examining all issues surrounding a filtering incident can sometimes lead researchers to pause before they can confirm that a Web site is indeed being targeted by a particular censor per se. It is not always as straight-forward as it appears.