Saudi Censorship of Web Ranges Far Beyond Tenets of Islam, Study Finds

New York Times, Aug. 29, 2002

The Saudi government is censoring public Internet access to a degree that goes significantly but haphazardly beyond its stated central goal of blocking sexually explicit content that violates the values of Islam, according to a recent study by Harvard Law School researchers.

The study’s detailed list of blocked sites offers a glimpse into the areas that the Saudi government has deemed most troubling. Among them are sites related to pornography, women’s rights, gays and lesbians, non-Islamic religions and criticism of political restrictions. Many humor and entertainment sites have also been blocked.

The report, by the law school’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was completed with the cooperation of the Saudi government. It is the first in a series by the center on Internet filtering by governments around the world.

“When the cost of the censoring is just flipping a switch, it’s a lot easier to enforce,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a director of the Berkman Center and an author of the report. “That makes it more appealing to a number of regimes.”

Saudi Arabia, with China, is widely considered to have one of the most restrictive Internet-access policies. Before granting the public access to the Internet in 1999, the Saudi government spent two years building a controlled infrastructure so that all Internet traffic would pass through government-controlled servers.

The Internet Service Unit, which controls Saudi Arabia’s Web access, says that blocking pornography is its main focus, accounting for 95 percent of the pages it blocks. But its Web site says Web pages subject to blocking include those “related to drugs, bombs, alcohol, gambling and pages insulting the Islamic religion or the Saudi laws” — a policy that is largely an extension of the country’s censorship regulations for the news media and entertainment.

The government does not provide a public list of offending sites. But the Internet Service Unit gave Harvard researchers access to the computer servers for several days in May. They requested 64,557 distinct Web pages and found 2,038 blocked.

Saudi citizens with a bit of knowledge about the Internet have found some ways to get around the government firewall. Some dial up to Internet service providers in other countries. Others get around the firewall at no extra cost by using intermediary computers on the Internet, known as proxies, to disguise the source of the traffic.

The Harvard report tries to piece together the criteria under which Web sites are censored. “Ordinarily, when censors declare something to be bad, they have to file it,” said Benjamin Edelman, the other author of the report. “Here the software allows blacklists to be secret.”

The Saudi government uses software called SmartFilter, created by Secure Computing in San Jose, Calif., to block most of the pornographic, gambling and drug-related sites. But the SmartFilter software is also customized with blacklists provided by Saudi security agencies, the Saudi Internet administrators said. Among the pages selected by security agencies are some that are critical of Saudi Arabia’s political situation, like the Web sites of Amnesty International and the Saudi Institute, another human rights watchdog group.

The Saudi government, which does not allow women to drive, has also restricted access to information about women’s advances elsewhere. The “Women in American History” section of Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, which summarizes the women’s rights movement from 1600 to the present, is blocked. IVillage, a popular American advice and support site for women, is also blacklisted.

“Clearly there are sensitivities about women’s rights,” Professor Zittrain said.

The report also ticks off a broad range of blocked religion-oriented sites, from Christian to Jewish to Buddhist to Hindu ones. Yet even sites that are not overtly political or sexual in nature are filtered, like the magazine site; Warner Brothers Records, at; and, a French-language entertainment and information site.

The Harvard report is available at

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 31, 2002.
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