When Censorship Spreads Disease

Maryn McKenna in Wired criticizes the Saudi government handling of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) for trying to control information about the spread of the disease:

While we wait to see the full extent of MERS, the one thing the world can do is to relearn the lesson of SARS: Just as diseases will always cross borders, governments will always try to evade blame. That problem can’t be solved with better devices or through a more sophisticated public-health dragnet.

The solution lies in something public health has failed to accomplish despite centuries of trying: persuading governments that transparency needs to trump concerns about their own reputations. Information can outrun our deadly new diseases, but only if it’s allowed to spread.

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Why They Censor

Abdul-Rahman al-Hazzaa, president of the newly established Saudi Radio and Television Authority, writes:

When a journalist or a program are banned, or when a newspaper is censored, then the matter must have crossed the line and reached the stage of opposing the country’s direction and its supreme interests. There are religious, national, political and social considerations that every journalist must keep before their eyes to avoid rushing into their search for fame and stardom. Someone may say: goodbye to restrictions and limits on movement as people now can use the modern tools of media and communications to fly freely, say and write whatever they want. But does that mean leaving the door wide open? The answer is: No. Concerned authorities must address anything that could harm the interests of the country and its people in any aspect of life, even if it necessitated censorship and bans. The effect of what is said and written in media is not limited to who said or wrote as it could affect others inside and outside the country, therefore every violator must be dealt with according to what achieves greater good.

The official’s defense of censorship comes few days after authorities here banned two talk shows and the host of a third one in the same week.

Saudi Arabia to Block WhatsApp Soon, Newspaper Says

Saudi Arabia’s Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) will shortly block messaging app WhatsApp, the daily al-Hayat reported on Sunday. The newspaper said it was informed by senior sources at the regulator that the move to block the popular app comes after negotiations with WhatsApp makers to meet regulatory requirement in the Kingdom reached a dead end.

Local media reported earlier this year that CITC has requested from telecom companies to find ways to monitor encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Skype. If communication through these apps cannot be monitored then they should be blocked, the newspapers said. There has been much speculation since then over if and when CITC will block apps.

On June 5 CITC blocked Viber, another instant messaging app, saying it has failed to meet the regulatory requirement of Saudi Arabia, adding that other apps like WhatsApp and Skype are being put under review and could be blocked soon.

The report in al-Hayat carried criticism to CITC, not for taking steps to block apps but rather for failure to encourage the local software industry to develop alternative messaging apps that can be controlled by authorities here, citing examples in China where users behind the Great Firewall use local apps like Weibo as alternatives for Twitter.

UPDATE: CITC denied the report in al-Hayat, saying via Twitter that the Comission has not made any statement to the media about blocking WhatsApp.

Photo courtesy of Luis via Flickr

‘Just an Inconvenience’

Eman al-Nafjan on the blocking of Viber:

In the long term it doesn’t really matter how many applications are blocked or what reason they’re blocked for. Early on, Saudi persistence and desperation has broken down all blocks.

Censorship does not work anymore. If people wanted access to something, they will find a way to get there.

Viber Vows to Circumvent Saudi Block

Talmon Marco, founder and CEO of Viber Inc., told Arab News in an exclusive interview that his company will find a way to avoid Saudi Arabia blocking its messaging services.

“We will not rest until the service has been restored in Saudi Arabia,” Marco said.

He added: “We are developing technology that will circumvent this block. It will be rolled out in phases. We hope to have the first step in a couple of weeks.”

Saudi Arabia Blocks Viber

Saudi Arabia announced that it has blocked instant messaging app Viber. The Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC), the regulatory authority in the country, said the decision to block the app is a followup to their statement earlier this year that they will take “suitable measures” against apps that violate laws of the Kingdom.

“Viber app has been blocked starting on June 5, 2013, because it does not currently meet the regulatory requirements and laws in Saudi Arabia,” CITC said in statement published Wednesday on their website.

Local media reported in March that CITC asked mobile providers in the country to find ways to monitor encrypted messaging and VOIP apps like Viber, Skype and WhatsApp. If these apps could not be monitored then they will be blocked. CITC issued a statement later that month saying “it would take suitable measures against these apps and services” that fail to meet regulatory requirements in the country.

Announcing its decision to ban Viber, CITC reiterated their intention to take measures against other apps and services.

Viber is a cross-platform instant messaging VOIP application for smartphones and desktop computers developed by a Cyprus-based company founded by American-Israeli entrepreneur Talmon Marco. The company has offices in Israel and Belarus. Marco said last month that they have more than 200 million users world wide.

No Sacred Views

Glenn Greenwald writes in the Guardian about the calls to censor Twitter:

People who want the state to punish the expression of certain ideas are so convinced of their core goodness, the unchallengeable rightness of their views, that they cannot even conceive that the ideas they like will, at some point, end up on the Prohibited List.

That’s what always astounds and bothers me most about censorship advocates: their unbelievable hubris. There are all sorts of views I hold that I am absolutely convinced I am right about, and even many that I believe cannot be reasonably challenged.

But there are no views that I hold which I think are so sacred, so objectively superior, that I would want the state to bar any challenge to them and put in prison those who express dissent. How do people get so convinced of their own infallibility that they want to arrogate to themselves the power not merely to decree which views are wrong, but to use the force of the state to suppress those views and punish people for expressing them?

In the case of Saudi religious conservatives, they seem to think that their ideas and actions are sacred because they are endorsed by God.