Middle East has a big problem: It loves tech but can't stop blocking it

Concerns about free expression and privacy are shaping online behaviors in the Middle East, as more governments crack down.

Middle East's connected youth is gorging on social media The rise of visually orientated social networks, video, and messaging apps is helping shape usage.

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

Five surprising facts about technology takeup in the Middle East

You might already know that the area around the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey presents a diverse tech picture, but who's leading the mobile and internet pack - and who's trailing - may yet surprise you.

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Middle East governments are not averse to blocking the internet and mobile networks. Such behavior was evident in Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011 and has been a regular occurrence in Turkey. Communication networks have been seen as a potential battleground in nations like Iran and Yemen.

Alongside the wider infrastructure blocking, specific services such as YouTube and other social networks can also find themselves targeted. This targeting doesn't just happen at times of protest or political upheaval. In summer 2016, Algeria temporarily closed multiple social networks and messaging services to stop students cheating in their exams.

SEE: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

More widely, a number of Middle Eastern countries have historically had a difficult relationship with VoIP services and messenger apps, many of which have been banned – temporarily or permanently.

Residents across the region also find they often need to be mindful of what they say, and do, online too. In 2015, a Facebook rant landed a US man in a UAE jail. Two years later, another man was deported from the Emirates for insulting his wife on WhatsApp.

"Cybercrime laws in the United Arab Emirates are no joke," wrote Leyal Khalife, executive editor of  Dubai-based website Stepfeed. Similar sentiments are applicable to other countries across the MENA region.

Middle East cultural context

It's worth remembering that Middle Eastern attitudes towards many of these issues can differ fundamentally from those found in other parts of the world.

In many Middle East countries, access to 'haram' content, such as pornography, and sites promoting gambling or alcohol, is blocked by ISPs. Research in 2012 showed that internet users in the region were more supportive of governments blocking this type of online content than users in other regions.

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)."

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Middle East internet users were more supportive of governments blocking online content than users in other regions.

Image: Northwestern University in Qatar, Media Use in the Middle East, 2017

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."

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Large majorities of Arab nationals believe entertainment media in the region should be more tightly regulated.

Image: Northwestern University in Qatar

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.

Other countries are following suit. The Palestinian Authority blocked several news websites in June 2017, a month before a new cybercrime law was enacted.

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".

In 2017, authorities in Abu Dhabi detained an Emirati accused of defaming UAE through social-media channels. And a British man was arrested, and later deported in 2018, for sending an angry WhatsApp message to a car dealer after the vehicle he purchased earlier that day broke down.

SEE: A winning strategy for cybersecurity (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Given these restrictions, how do ordinary netizens try and stay on the right side of the law?

One key challenge is that, attitudes towards what people can, and cannot, say online also vary substantially from country to country.

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.

The first, and most obvious remedy is to be careful about what you say online. Back in 2012, research found that almost half of the region's internet users are "very careful" about what they say and do online.

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".

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There is a rising concern among Arab internet users about governments and companies monitoring their online activity.

Image: Northwestern University in Qatar

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."  

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Use of VPNs in the Middle East region varies widely by country.

Image: Northwestern University in Qatar

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. 

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