Dubai: Saudi Arabia is seeking to tighten control over web-based applications that offer a freedom to communicate that is impossible for most Saudis in the real world, and may even seek to ban such apps altogether.
Saudi Arabia remains a relatively closed society; gender mixing is restricted to a tight circle of relatives and family friends, and direct criticism of the ruling family or powerful conservative clergy is frowned upon. Morality police patrol the kingdom’s few public spaces such as shopping malls to enforce rigid social rules.
Cyberspace presents considerably more complicated challenges than a shopping centre, however, and Saudi authorities are alarmed by the unfettered contact that the Internet allows, including for activists who spread news and information not covered by state media.
With just under half the kingdom’s nearly 27 million population younger than 25, according to the CIA Factbook, Saudis are avid users of social media of all kinds.
“People use social media ... more than asking to meet in person. It’s safer,” said a Jeddah-based activist, who like others interviewed for this story asked not to be named because he feared reprisals from state authorities.
“We know they are watching us, but they cannot control us on social media.” The number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia nearly doubled in six months to 2.9 million in July 2012, amounting to a little over 10 per cent of the population, according to analysts Semiocast. By April of this year, the kingdom was the eighth biggest user of Twitter globally, accounting for 2.3 per cent of all tweets, Semiocast estimates.
The kingdom now has the biggest number of viewers per capita of YouTube globally, according to the website, which has spawned a thriving industry producing homemade videos that is pushing at the boundaries of traditional Saudi programming.
These production houses are Saudi-run and alert to local sensitivities, avoiding politics and using satire to cover local news for example, and so Saudi authorities are turning a blind eye to their activities - for now.
Free and easy-to-use communication applications present a more immediate social - and commercial - hazard.
Tech-savvy young Saudis are increasingly moving away from traditional telephony provided by the kingdom’s three mobile operators, Saudi Telecom Co (STC), Etihad Etisalat
(Mobily) and Zain Saudi - the government has stakes in STC and Mobily - and toward apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
The telephone and messaging applications allow users to circumvent strict state controls with a degree of anonymity.
According to the website of WhatsApp, each user is able to create up to 50 group chats of up to 50 participants each.
“If you open the phone of any Saudi you’ll find at least 10 to 15 WhatsApp groups - some groups have more than 5,000 members and send out a daily news round-up,” said a rights activist in Qatif in the restive Eastern Province, home to many of the kingdom’s Shi’ite community.
“WhatsApp is now used much more than email, because it’s seen as easier and more secure.”
For the Saudi ruling class, which runs the country according to shariah, these are worrying trends.
The Saudi regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), said in March that communications apps, including Skype, Viber and WhatsApp, broke unspecified laws and ordered operators carrying these services to comply with the regulations without making clear how.
Then in June the regulator banned Viber altogether. Saudi newspapers a week later carried reports that WhatsApp would also be banned within weeks, though nothing has been heard on this since.
CITC did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but said in a statement that it was protecting society from “negative aspects that could harm the public interest”.
Newspapers, quoting unnamed state sources, said CITC has asked operators to find ways to block and monitor the apps.
Human rights activists say social media and tools such as WhatsApp are vital to their work. Television and local newspapers, which do not deviate from the official line, do not cover rights issues.
“We’re getting news out to the rest of the world any way we can - if we don’t have secure communications then Saudi Arabia will go back to being the Kingdom of the Dark, where nobody knows what’s going on,” said the Qatif-based activist.
Another Qatif-based activist said he was the administrator of six WhatsApp groups, which combined had more than 1,000 members. WhatsApp is preferred because unlike some other instant messaging apps, it has the option for only administrators to know the identity of group members.
“If they close WhatsApp it will be difficult to send group messages via mobile; individual texts will be very expensive,” said the second activist.
Experts say that banning the likes of WhatsApp will just push communications to other mobile applications, or possibly to the less convenient use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and Tor.
VPNs use an encrypted server connection, usually in another country, which makes it appear as though the user is actually in that location. Secure browser Tor is able to disguise the origins of user data by sending it through three servers picked randomly among 3,000 dotted across the globe.
“There are people who misuse social networking and try to send false information and false evaluation of the situation in the kingdom,” security spokesman Major General Mansour Al Turki told a news conference in February.
He later said that authorities did not want to limit Internet access on security grounds, however.
Some among the Saudi elite have argued that censorship is a waste of time.
“This is a futile contest - launching a war against media, and especially social media, that are open to free expression is a lost cause,” Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, a billionaire with a stake in Twitter, said in a March television interview.