RealTime IT News

Saudi Arabia's Online Population Explosion

The last Gulf state to allow its citizens access to the Internet, Saudi Arabia is now on its way to becoming one of the largest proponents of Internet use with over than 45,000 users online.

Internet access in Saudi Arabia started just this year when "filtering" technology was implemented in order to screen out material deemed contrary to Islamic belief. Before Internet services were legalized, as many as 8,000 Saudi citizens accessed the Net via Bahrain and other neighboring countries despite the higher fees for international calls.

The Saudi Telecom Company (STC) was responsible for connecting the ISPs to their Internet Service Unit. Reportedly only 42 of 71 ISP license applicants were evaluated as technologically qualified.

The UAE's telco Etisalat was the first to provide Internet access more than three years ago. Other countries in the Gulf quickly allowed access while Saudi Arabia, the region's largest IT market, delayed the decision to allow time to address religious and political considerations.

The government asked King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology to set up a screening system to filter out any material which the authorities consider dangerous to the country's national security or public morals -- pornography sites, uncensored chat programs such as ICQ, and political sites, for example.

The original plan was to have a massive firewall surround a direct connection. Countries like Singapore and the UAE have banned restricted sites through proxy servers that block sites according to an updated list of undesirables, but King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology decided on an inverse plan: create list of acceptable sites.

The group reviews sites and an internal committee releases an officially sanctioned list. All other sites are banned by default. However, the proxy system established couldn't prevent users from accessing many unsanctioned sites and chat programs.

In a report published by the BBC, a government source admitted there was no fail-safe method of screening the Internet and that many Saudi users already access banned material by dialing up servers in other countries.

An official from King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology said that the group expects the number of users in Saudi Arabia will increase from 70,000 to 150,000 users by the end of next year.