Social networking in Saudi Arabia does not possess the freedom that is regularly associated with social media across the world (Freedomhouse, 2017). Censorship, surveillance, internet blocking, and regulations are some of the major elements that are influencing the freedom of social networking in the country. For instance, in 2012, the Shura Council, which is the body responsible for advising the king of Saudi Arabia on legislative matters, stated that they are in the process of drafting a law that would punish individuals taking advantage of social media to attack Islam, with Facebook, Twitter, and blogs being the targeted areas (Sadek, 2012).
The statistics presented by Al-Khalifa and Garcia (2013) shows that more than half of the Saudis do not engage in social media since the number presented of active internet users in the country is 47.5%. The same statistics presented suggests that Facebook is the most common social media tool in the country, with 82% of the internet users being familiar with it. In regards to the role played by social media in the Higher Education of Saudi Arabia, it is clear that social media is an influential tool in Higher Education learning in the country. As per the statistics presented by Al-Khalifa and Garcia (2013), Saudi Arabia’s universities have the highest number of social media users with 80% having access to Facebook, 72% accessing Twitter, and 31% viewing YouTube videos. The statistics are a clear indication that the country participates aggressively in social media technological trends. Thus, the government of Saudi Arabia do not restrict their citizens from accessing the internet and social media, but only restricts some of the content accessed as a way of protecting its citizens from the harm that might be present in the social media.
Even though the outsiders might view Saudi Arabia’s censorship of internet content as a violation of the freedom of the Saudi citizens, a deeper look into the matter gives a different suggestion. The Saudi internationals actively engage in the maintenance of the high standards set in the society, as they contribute hundreds of suggestions to the Internet Services Unit for censorship review (AlJabre, 2013). Thus, the contributions made by the citizens are a clear indication that they see the positive side of the censorship activities engaged by the government. Further, even though the Saudi Arabian government has the tenancy of censoring the internet content, little effort goes into censuring social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that allows conversations that would not be permissible in the conventional media outlets.
The revolution of social media in Saudi Arabia is also making it hard for the government to regulate the content accessed in the internet as it is harder to blackout international news in a similar fashion to domestic news especially when factoring in the aspect of constant updates in newsfeed from Twitter and other outlets (Amos, 2011). However, the censorship law employed by the government in 2012 seems to act as a step forward by the authority into controlling international news to protect the interests of the nation.
Information filtering is a common aspect in Saudi Arabia, with the supporting evidence being on the activities of the Internet Security Unit’s server (Zittrain and Edelman, 2002). Some of the content blocked by the body includes sexually explicit content and other materials that are not compatible with the Islamic beliefs. The filtering service in the country is overseen by three major bodies that include Internet Service Providers, Data Service Providers, and the Communication and Information Technology Commission. Cybercrime is a common issue affecting operations on the internet, and as a way of dealing with the issues presented by cybercrime, the Saudi Arabia government established an anti-cybercrime law in 2007 (Alqahtani, 2016). Some of the common cybercrimes committed by the Saudis on the internet include blackmail, embezzlement of funds, defamation, and hacking of accounts. The anti-cybercrime law aims at guaranteeing safe data exchange, protecting the rights of users, and protecting public interests and morals. Some of the penalties provided by the law for those who break it include a five years imprisonment term or a fine not exceeding $800,000, and recently included public naming and shaming of the offenders (Wilkinson, 2015).
Apart from technical filtering, the country also introduced other internet restrictions that included the requirement for all internet cafes to install hidden cameras, close shop by midnight, and do not allow under 18-years to access the cafes (Europarl, 2015; Internet.sa, 2018; OpenNet Initiative, 2004). Further, other restrictions include the requirement that the citizens interested in blogging needs to first acquire a license from the government before commencing on their blogging activities, with the government having the power to revoke the license at their pleasure (Alarabiya, 2018). The move by the government to impose more restrictions in the use of the internet is a way of ensuring that there is no rise of social destabilization that might easily erupt from social media like in the case of Tunisia. According to Green and Karolides (2005), the censorship initiatives engaged by the Saudi Arabian government act as a way in which they can suppress and control the freedom of its citizens.
The cases of internet restrictions in Saudi Arabia have led to the development of concerns. Reporters without borders are some of the groups that have been vocal in condemning the actions of the government such as the ones imposed by the Ministry of Culture and Information (Reporters Without Borders, 2012). However, the Saudi government has become more considerate in regards to their internet restriction initiatives. For instance, the government recently uplifted their ban on internet calls as a way of promoting economic growth (BBC News, 2018). The government’s move can also be seen as an indication that they are also considerate of the fact that human rights are moving more online (Reuters, 2017). According to the report by the European Parliament, censorships amount to human rights violations, violation of freedom of expression, and the right to privacy (RSF, 2016). Apart from Communications and Information Technology Commission and the Ministry of Culture and Information, other bodies responsible for restricting the use of internet in Saudi Arabia include King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and the Private Security, National Commission for Cyber Security, and the Center for Studies and Information Affairs in Royal Court (PoKempner, 2017).
Another major aspect regarding social media in Saudi Arabia is the upcoming issue concerning politicians attacking each other online (Frier, Dennis, and Vynck, 2017). The use of fake accounts was an issue during the Brexit period, with Russians being the main culprits of the issue (Weaver et al., 2017). Recently, gulf reported that Qatar opened 23,000 fake accounts to attack Saudi Arabia, with all the terms used mainly targeting the leadership of Saudi Arabia (English Alarabiya, 2017). Politicians see the use of fake accounts as a way of getting their points out without caring about the consequences that may arise from their actions.
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