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.

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