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The Internet's 'Open Sesame' Is Answered Warily

The New York Times
March 18, 1999

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Ever so gingerly, the Internet is being allowed across some final frontiers, into restrictive parts of the Islamic world, under the wary eye of governments used to playing Big Brother.

In places like Saudi Arabia, where access was barred until two months ago, the change is being hailed as a belated revolution. Internet cafes have sprung up in Teheran, Iran, and here in Riyadh, and novices are being dazzled by sites like

Still, the authorities are trying to have it both ways.

In Iran, users -- who are monitored by some providers -- must promise, among other things, that they "will not contact stations against Islamic regulations," a reference to sites with sexual content. Violators are warned that they could lose Internet privileges.

Censorship in Saudi Arabia is even more overt. Under a system that took two years to develop, all Internet connections in the country have been routed through a hub outside Riyadh, where high-speed Government computers block access to thousands of sites catalogued on a rapidly expanding blacklist.

Want to check out what opposition groups abroad have to say about the ruling Saud family? "Forbidden!!!" the computer responds. How about a chat service that allows for, well, freewheeling conversation? No again. A game of blackjack? Uh-uh.

"All access attempts are logged," users are warned somberly, in a hint that any attempt to stray beyond what the Saudi Government considers acceptable bounds could have further, unspecified consequences.

Still, the enthusiasm with which the Internet is being received seems to reflect a view that a little access is better than none at all.

Sometimes I get angry that we had to wait so long," said Hisham A. Turkistani, 25, a Saudi who sat hunched over a computer in the Café de Paris in Jidda, Saudi Arabia's first Internet cafe, listening to Mariah Carey on "But now the Internet is all that my friends and I talk about. There are so many things in this world!"

On a recent evening at the cafe in Jidda, on the Red Sea coast, other customers -- who were paying $12 an hour for the privilege -- included a medical student, Hilal Sonbul, 25, clearly amazed as a technician showed him how much information about his future profession could be found with a few keystrokes.

Across the Persian Gulf in Iran, at another brand-new cafe, a young man was sending an electronic greeting card to a friend in the United States. He had also spent his Friday afternoon downloading applications, he said, for admission to graduate schools, among them the engineering program at the City University of New York.

"It used to take three or four weeks for letters to get through," said the young man, who would give his name only as Hamid. "Now it takes a few seconds. I know that some people here are afraid of the Internet, but I don't think most of them even know what the Internet is."

Technophobia is hardly new to the Middle East, where the sensitivities of strict Islamic cultures and the worries of security-conscious governments have long combined to justify censorship.

At one time or another, every government in the region has jammed radio broadcasts, intercepted publications, scuttled fax transmissions, barred mobile telephones or prohibited satellite television.

But since the arrival of the Internet, many countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, have quietly conceded the fight, concluding that the benefits of the new technology far outweigh the cost. In those countries and others, essentially unrestricted Internet access has been available since the mid-1990's.

Still, more conservative governments like those in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia have done their best to keep walls in place. There is no Internet access in Iraq and Syria, where the concept is being studied by a committee headed by the son of President Hafez al-Assad, an indication of the matter's sensitivity.

In Iran, an Islamic republic that prohibits the publication of photographs of women unless their heads and bodies are covered, ordinary people were not permitted graphic access to the Internet until December 1997, after the election of President Mohammad Khatami ushered in an era of relative openness. Even now, the service, with prices beginning at $330 a year for one hour a day, remains too costly for all but a few.

In Saudi Arabia it was not until January that users could get access to the Internet without first establishing an account abroad and then connecting to the provider via an international call, at a cost of at least $1 a minute.

Under new rules, 42 local providers have been licensed, after a high-level Government study that lasted two years. But the service has been plagued by growing pains, and only 10,000 Saudis have signed up so far, though some 115,000 are expected by the end of the year -- a small fraction in a country of 20 million.

And still, neither delays nor limitations have assuaged fears that the information highway is a road to corruption.

A top Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Janatti, warned in a recent Friday sermon that the "disgraceful, immoral pictures" broadcast on the Internet were an affront to "all humanity, morality and chastity" that "threatens us all." Even now, the Iranian Government has still not officially legalized Internet use, perhaps with an eye to conservative militias that have threatened attacks on the offices of Internet providers.

In Saudi Arabia criticism has been muted since King Fahd issued a decree in March 1997 calling for the drafting of guidelines for Internet use, thus offering the idea his implicit endorsement.

Now that the system is in place, Saudi officials are seeking to call attention to what is quickly becoming available, including Internet banking, instead of what is banned.

"There is nothing to block except two things: that which is against our religion, and that which is against our society," said Abdullah al-Rasheed, deputy director of the King Abdelaziz City for Science and Technology, a Government entity that supervises the Internet.

In practice, those criteria have proved far-reaching. One local provider's effort to establish a Saudi chat site was rejected, apparently out of concern that it would allow contact between unmarried men and women -- still taboo in a society in which even dating is prohibited.

Apparently for similar reasons, video-conferencing also remains off limits. Sites containing nudity or sexual material are rendered inaccessible. And the absolute ban on content "against our society" has kept a lid on political dissent, barring access to sites that offer any hint of criticism of the Saudi Government.

The restrictions have prompted some quiet criticism, mostly from parents who argue that online contact between young people is a healthy alternative to trying to suppress such contact altogether.

"They're not hearing the voice, they're not seeing the face, so where is the haram there?" Samar Fatany, a radio broadcaster, asked, using the Arabic word for something prohibited for religious reasons. "I don't think anyone can label it as a sin."

To enforce the rules, the Saudi Government has assumed the role of parent, using commercial software like Smart Filter, by Secure Computer, to screen all requests and block contact to sites it wants kept off-limits. The software is updated every day, Saudi officials say, as Riyadh-based technicians add new sites to the blacklist, in part by watching to see which sites Saudis seek out.

"It's kind of scary," said Fadlil Khaliallah, 33, manager of the Internet cafe in Jidda. "If someone manages to get on to a bad site, we notice that it is always blocked by the next day."

With thousands of new Web sites created every day, savvy users can keep a step ahead of most restrictions. Even Saudi officials concede that keeping the blacklist up to date is an uphill fight. Still, they say they are determined to make sure that Internet use in Saudi Arabia is kept within acceptable bounds.

"There are two choices," said Fahad al-Hoyany, a computer scientist with degrees from three American universities who heads the Government's Internet Services Unit. "Either you let it go altogether, or you try to limit it, and we hope to at least protect the innocents."


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