Saudi Arabian Internet censorship & How to bypass blocks

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Saudi Arabia is the Middle Eastern Kingdom with a population of 32.9 million. It is a wealthy nation in which 20 percent of citizens live in acute poverty. Despite this relatively high level of critical poverty, Internet penetration rates are excellent – with around 80% of people enjoying an active internet connection. The vast majority of those internet users (88%) use mobile connections and the nation is experiencing a decline in the use of fixed line telecoms.

Political Overview

Saudi Arabia is a highly religious kingdom in which laws are executed by the absolutist monarchy. The King, who is head of state and government, holds complete control over the judicial and executive arm of the country's political system. The King is chosen from a male line of descendants who are directly related to the country founder. A council of important princes must approve the decision.

The Saudi royal family is of an Islamist line and the country uses The Qur'an as its constitution, which is governed on the basis of Islamic Sharia law. The cabinet which is appointed by the king passes all the nation legislation, which becomes law once ratified by the king.

Under such a system, the government can easily control the media and the online landscape to ensure that any content critical of the royal family or Islam – or that is in opposition to Sharia law – is quickly thwarted.

Although election for local municipal councils do exist, those elections are completely manipulated, with few people able to participate in the elections. Only 30 women serve on government councils, making up less than 1% of the total. However, a woman was appointed as deputy minister for labor and social development in February 2018. Her role is to improve and promote women's working opportunities within the nation.

For the people of Saudi Arabia, the results in an extreme political environment where it is possible to be accused of Blasphemy and given a life sentence, without much in the way of a fair trial. The monarchy restricts almost all political and social rights, and both women and religious minorities face extreme levels of discrimination both in law and in practice.

In June 2018, a long-standing ban on women holding driving licenses was lifted. However, in the run-up to that change in the law, many female activists campaigning for the right to drive were arrested, accused of conspiring with foreign governments, and, allegedly, tortured. Even when reform does occur, the government makes every effort to discredit the role of civil society in that process.

Finally, it is worth noting that the government produces huge amounts of wealth from the sale of oil, some of which is passed onto the people in Saudi Arabia in the form of social welfare systems. However, there is little to no public knowledge of state accounts or how much public money eventually benefits the royal family and its chosen associates.

In 2017, the crown arrested 200 people and coerced them into handing over billions of dollars' worth of assets to the government. According to the government, those citizens had engaged in direct support for anti-government dissident groups.

Censorship

In Saudi Arabia, the government maintains strict control over what is printed in the media. Huge numbers of websites are also blocked in the country on religious and moral grounds. This includes website content containing nudity or content of a sexual nature, content relating to gambling or drugs, content relating to minority religions, content critical of Islam or in support of divergent forms of Islam (anything but Wahhabism is prohibited). All takedown requests are handled by the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC).

Websites and social media pages of human rights or political organizations, including websites that express views of women's rights, are blocked. However, access to foreign language news websites are generally available (though certain pages may also be subjected to backouts if they are critical of Islam or the Saudi government).

Political opposition is also banned in Saudi Arabia and anybody found to be promulgating anti-government sentiment online or otherwise can be imprisoned and face the death sentence.

In September 2018, a dissident cleric was given the death sentence for criticizing the government on religious grounds. And, in October the government admitted that Saudi security forces had killed Jamal Khashoggi, a famous Saudi journalist after he traveled to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to seek the necessary papers to marry a Turkish woman.

That assassination was met with a severe backlash from the international community who strongly criticized the government treatment of the dissident writer. Many journalists and political dissidents continue to face long jail sentences under brutal conditions in Saudi prisons.

Gender segregation, as well as discrimination against minorities such as LGBTQ or religious minorities (anybody who deviates from strict Wahhabism), is also common. This often forces censorship onto those minorities by excluding them from access to information and involvement in participation in civil society.

A new anti-terrorism law passed in November 2017 allows the government to arrest anybody who uses digital means such as social media to bring the royal family into disrepute. The act of using social status or media influence to promote terrorism is also criminalized.

Since then large numbers of people including intellectuals, academics, religious clerics, and even members of the ruling family, have been arrested for promoting illegal views on social media. Reports have also surfaced that some of those arrests led to torture and even death. For this reason, it is becoming more dangerous to use the internet and social media to express dissenting opinions.

Websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and messengers such as Telegram, WhatsApp, Skype, Signal, Viber, and Facebook Messenger – as well as technologies for gaining privacy online – have all suffered blackouts from time to time. At the time of writing, WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Telegram remain blocked, and can only be accessed using a virtual private network (VPN).

To conclude, while the internet is still the most free avenue for expressing opinions from within Saudi Arabia, access to website content and freedom of expression is severely restricted. In addition, fear, intimidation, and violence are successfully being used to enforce high levels of self-censorship. As a result of which, there is little room for freedom of speech.

Surveillance

In Saudi Arabia, surveillance is widespread. All of Saudi Arabia internet users are connected to the world wide web via two country-level data service providers. By bottlenecking all traffic through these servers, the government is able to perform high levels of data interception as it comes both in and out of the country.

In addition, because of the vast wealth held by the royal family – as well as the country links to the UK and the US and their highly invasive surveillance programs – it seems likely that the government has invested in highly sophisticated methods for intercepting data to perform surveillance.

A leak from the Italian firm, Hacking Team, in 2015, revealed that the Saudi government had purchased elite hacking tools that et them perform high levels of surveillance on citizens. Reportedly the government used these to snoop on political opponents and dissidents.

However, the lack of privacy protections and legislation in the country makes it entirely plausible that the government used those tools to intercept communications, access phone contacts, images, and to perform key logging and to take screenshots on any citizen device that it wishes. Reports have also surfaced that the UK defense contractor BAE Systems sold Saudi Arabia sophisticated surveillance systems.

The authorities also regularly monitor websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. The Ministry of Culture and Information requires all blogs, forums, and chat rooms to obtain a license from the ministry. This ensures that all users are being monitored and that high levels of self-censorship ensue.

To similar ends, new requirements passed in 2015 forcing all mobile phone users to register using their fingerprints in order to obtain a service. This includes purchasing a new SIM card. Thus, there is no way to gain telecoms technology anonymously within the country.

Piracy

All websites that provide access to pirated content – both via streaming and downloading via BitTorrent (the Pirate Bay, for example) – are blocked by Saudi ISPs. However, the government does not appear to hunt down and prosecute copyright pirates.

On the other hand, the use of privacy tools (if detected) could be enough to raise suspicions from the Saudi authorities, which could lead to arrest, torture, false accusations of blasphemy, and possibly death. For this reason, the use of VPN technology and other forms of privacy and location spoofing tools should be approached with caution.

Websites for major VPNs and Tor are blocked by the government in an attempt to stop people using privacy and location spoofing tools.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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