It's easy to take for granted the online freedoms that users in many Western countries view as normal. In other regions, such as the Middle East and North Africa, online activity can be highly problematic.
Five surprising facts about technology takeup in the Middle East
More recently, as Northwestern University in Qatar has shown: "Roughly half of nationals support tighter internet regulation for political content, culturally sensitive content, and cost (making sure the internet is affordable)."
According to the university's latest study published in February 2019: "Large majorities of Arab nationals in each country, except Tunisia – about three-quarters or more of other nationals – believe entertainment media in the Arab region should be more tightly regulated for both violent and romantic content. But still a sizable minority of Tunisians – four in 10 – agrees."
New cybercrime laws and other legislation
These attitudes play out against a backdrop in countries, such as those in the Gulf region, which have historically restricted traditional forms of speech. According to a 2018 paper by Chatham House's Joyce Hakmeh, these nations "have latterly sought to do the same with online speech as well".
"Through their cybercrime laws, the GCC countries have sought to get a stronger grip on social media and to stymie the potential for spillover via online platforms of political unrest from other Arab countries," Hakmeh notes.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, a 2018 law classified social-media accounts with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets. "Under the new law, social-media users with a large following can be subject to prosecution for spreading false news or inciting crime," Arab News explained.
"The law [also] prohibits the establishment of websites without first obtaining a license from the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a government body with authority to legally suspend or block websites in violation of the country's strict laws, and penalize editors with hefty fines."
Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO dedicated to advocacy related to freedom of information and freedom of the press, placed the region "yet again" at the bottom of their World Press Freedom Index in 2018.
"In this particularly hostile environment for journalists, the internet has been the only space where a relative freedom to inform still exists," they wrote. "But the region's governments have realized this and, one by one, have been adopting cybercrime laws to gag online journalists and citizen-journalists."
Digital human rights
It's not just journalists and media companies that can fall foul of online regulations and legislation. Individuals can also find their digital footprint under scrutiny.
Egypt issued Amal Fathy, a human rights activist, with a two-year-suspended sentence and a 10,000 Egyptian pound ($560) fine in September for "spreading fake news".
According to the BBC, Fathy was arrested in May 2018 after criticizing the government for not doing enough to protect women in "a 12-minute video on Facebook in which she described how she had been sexually harassed while visiting her bank".
Another consideration, as Chatham House's Joyce Hakmeh explains, is that "all GCC countries, except for Bahrain, have introduced as part of their cybercrime laws provisions that criminalize a wide spectrum of content, using vaguely worded provisions that create the potential for confusion and abuse."
Solutions to online freedom issues
Nonetheless, consumers are taking a range of different steps to negotiate this landscape.
Research from Northwestern University in Qatar, published in 2017, charted a rising concern among Arab internet users about governments and companies monitoring their online activity. However, "only one in five nationals says that concerns about privacy have changed the way they use social media".
Where people are changing their online behaviors, often they're taking similar approaches to those seen in other markets.
That includes posting less polemic or polarizing opinions online, a trend in the US that the Pew Research Center memorably called "the spiral of silence". Other changes in behavior include migrating conversations to closed and encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Telegram, as well as perhaps avoiding using their real name.
Another potential remedy includes using a VPN, although recent research suggests they tend to be used to access entertainment content, which might be blocked because it is deemed inappropriate, or unavailable, often for rights reasons, in a specific country, rather than because of overriding privacy concerns.
However, the use of VPNs can also be fraught with difficulty. In UAE, for example, there appears to be some uncertainty and ambiguity about whether use of these networks is legal or not.
Northwestern University in Qatar omitted asking about usage in UAE in its 2017 Media Use study. Elsewhere, it found that use of VPNs varies widely by country. "One in five internet users uses a VPN in Saudi Arabia, compared with almost none in Lebanon," the report authors wrote.
That variance was even more apparent in its 2018 study, which showed "large increases between 2017 and 2018 in the percentages of Saudis and Qataris who use a VPN – now at 54 percent and 39 percent respectively – but figures are much lower among nationals in the other countries in the study: 10 percent of nationals or less."
Middle East's future
All the trends suggest that concerns about freedom of expression, increased government monitoring, continued restricted access to certain content types, and a clamping down on people breaking cybercrime laws, are set to continue. In some cases, they will get worse.
Mobile technology and the internet have transformed the Middle East in the past two decades. With take-up at record levels, the region now finds itself – as exemplified with these issues – at a technological and cultural crossroads.