“On the one hand, it’s deeply worrying that the government is seeking to create a surveillance culture that encompasses spying on all digital media.
“On the other, that same government would struggle to arrange a children’s party if provided with a clown, a bouncy castle, some children and an unlimited supply of jelly.”
— the satirist Daily Mash on new British online surveillance laws
On the one hand, a Wahhabi fatwa against Twitter. On the other, a princely stake from an Al Saud in the platform.
And on the other *other* hand, a growing campaign across the region to censor — and censure — dissent from social media users that is no laughing matter.
Social media is certainty shaking up the Kingdom. Hamza Kashgari was arrested for “blasphemous” tweets — whose supporters now assert that, so desperate were the Saudi authorities to make an example of him, they pressured Malaysian officials into arresting and extraditing him while he was traveling around Malaysia, and then lying abut this by claiming they had detained him at an airport.
In addition to the aforementioned fatwa, at least three Saudi journalists have been arrested and detained for their role in participating in or covering Shia demonstrations in the eastern part of the country. As Toby C. Jones noted, the Shia demonizing campaign of spring 2011 had as much to do with fear of losing influence in Bahrain — and perhaps more so — as it did with fear of having to make concessions to the country’s Shia citizens and rein in the Wahhabi establishment:
In Saudi Arabia, in dozens of places, hundreds of protesters routinely assembled, calling for relatively minor concessions, including greater religious tolerance and the release of Shiite political prisoners. But confronted by the sweeping changes underway across the region, ofﬁcials claimed that the protests at home and especially in Bahrain, if they were allowed to succeed, would lead to a catastrophe — a democratic state next door controlled by a Shiite majority, one they insisted would take marching orders from Tehran.
Given the heavy-handedness of the Saudi authorities, online anonymity is a safer way to organize than congregating in a town square. But the net is heavily monitored nonetheless, and stepping out into the sun rarely ends well. “March 11—the intended Day of Rage—came and went without mass protest,” Madawi Al-Rasheed wrote last month, and in the process of turnout and crackdown, at least one Saudi YouTuber was disappeared by the authorities.
The newest social media “subversive” stirring controversy in Saudi Araia is @Mujtahidd, who is exposing many unwelcome details about the lives of the rich and powerful in Saudi Arabia, such as the jetsetting Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Sultan. Those he has tweeted about find themselves deluged with angry questions about their alleged extravagances, such as “did your new estate in Riyadh cost the state 12 billion riyals?” or accused of pocketing billions of riyals from arms deals and construction contracts. @Mujtahidd asserts that endemic graft is costing the country 500 billion riyals annually. @Mujtahidd’s moralizing anti-corruption drive has apparently struck a chord among 290,000 followers in digging up old scandals and warning of new ones involving the House of Saud.
Media monitoring, as practiced by governments in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Iran (to name a few), is not so much enforced by datacenters, wiretaps and informants but by searches of TV stations by police, days in a holding cell and the warrant officer’s truncheon. The technology, of course, plays an increasingly vital role, not least because it makes it so much easier to prepare a mound of “evidence” to the prosecution’s satisfaction. Sultan Al Qassemi notes, governments and their supporters are becoming more social media savvy too: despite clerical criticism of the internet, the Twitterverse exploded with criticism of Kashgari from self-described “devout” Muslims.
Criticism of Gulf states’ human rights records or military policies has proven to be dangerous for social media users in the UAE — where several bloggers have been detained on charges of “sedition” and “blasphemy” for daring to report on activists and criticizing members of the royal family — and Oman. The same goes for the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has arrested several reporters and bloggers who’ve criticized corruption in the government. Ironically, arrests such as these seem to be among the few tasks that Tel Aviv and Washington implicitly trust Ramallah with.
In Iraq, a new law that has been proposed lock internet users away for life they were proven to have “compromis[ed] the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety, or any of its high economic, political, social, military, or security interests” or “implement programs or ideas which are disruptive to public order.” Considering that around only 2.5% of the population has ready internet access, this law demonstrates just how unpleasant Iraqi bloggers — as both independent observers of daily life and fixers for foreign media in Iraq — have become to the government (defenders of the law will cry havoc over a Baathist apologist on WordPress to make their case). Reports from Iraqi citizens on decaying infrastructure, missed opportunities, officials’ power trips and sectarian violence are not exactly civil society efforts conducive to cementing what to many Iraqis appears an oligarchy of parliamentarians and police generals. And to the west in Syria – where Western “retail” surveillance technology has been popping up from the U.S. and Germany – censorship is and has long been the norm, especially now that the demonstrations of 2011 have led to open war among the regime and anti-government militias.
This is the other side of cyber-security, the more immediate one than all the industrial sabotage malware or avionics-compromising logic bombs. Censorship of dissent through cyberspace “has a broader meaning in non-democracies: For them, the worst-case scenario is not collapsing power plants, but collapsing political power.”