‘Uniquely Captive Audience’

Matt Smith reports for Reuters:

The restrictions on Saudi society, where morality police patrol public spaces to enforce approved modes of behavior, has created a uniquely captive audience for web-based news and entertainment, media experts say.

With a population of 28.3 million, Saudi Arabia is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, and according to analysts Semiocast was the eighth most active country on Twitter as of April, accounting for 2.33 percent of all tweets.

Shoura Member Asks Police to Monitor Twitter

Issa al-Ghaith:

“With the increasing use of modern means of communication and social networking, some people make personal insults and false accusations against others and spread lies about them through the Internet and online forums. Hence, there is need for the police to allocate a website that will receive reports and complaints from victims.”

Not that Al-Ghaith, former judge and current member of the advisory Shoura Council, has been waiting for such website to sue people who attack him on Twitter. Last March he threatened to sue a conservative writer who posted critical tweets of him, and in April he filed a lawsuit against popular cleric Mohammed al-Arefi after he retweeted a poem that al-Ghaith deemed defamatory.

Riyadh Literary Club Offers Course on Tweeting

Saudi Gazette reports:

The Riyadh Literary Club recently organized a course on Twitter etiquette to improve the tweeting skills of Saudis and introduce them to the do’s and don’ts of this important social networking site, a local daily reported Monday.

Fifty participants attended the two-day course titled “Tweeting: Art and Skill”. Dr. Abdullah al-Haidary, chairman of the board of directors of the club and course instructor said, adding the course aims to remind participants of the influence of words.

The chairman said “spreading tweets that are against the country’s best interests” is an example of Twitter abuse.

Saudi Man Sentenced to Flogging for Insulting Tribe on Twitter

A Saudi court sentenced a man to 50 lashes for publishing insulting tweets against his own tribe, the daily al-Watan reported Friday.

The newspaper said that a group of people from a village near Medina complained at the local police station that the 30-year-old man has used social media site Twitter to write insults against their tribe, producing screenshots from the site as evidence against him. The tribesman reportedly asked the police to ban him from harming them, stop his insults and punish him for what he did.

The man said the statements that provoked his relatives came in a reply to a columnist on Twitter and that he did not intend to offend anyone from his village. But the judge considered what the man did as a “criminal act that damages the bonds of cohesion and disturbs tribal peace,” the newspaper said.

The court found him guilty of breaking the Anti e-Crimes Act and sentenced him to 50 lashes. He was also ordered to sign a pledge not to repeat the offense.

With the the government imposing many restrictions on free speech in mainstream media, social media has offered popular online outlets for Saudis to express themselves and talk about their issues. It is estimated that there are 4 million active users of Twitter in the country posting more than 50 million tweets per month.

Photo courtesy of Acid Pix via Flickr

Saudi Arabia Asked for Information of Twitter Users, Company’s Report Shows

Twitter said on Wednesday that the Saudi government made fewer than 10 requests for information about users of the social network during the first six months of this year.

The company did not disclose details of those requests, but its Transparency Report said they are “typically in connection with criminal investigations or cases.” The report shows that Twitter did not produce information related to any of these requests.

“An important conversation has begun about the extent to which companies should be allowed to publish information regarding national security requests,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager of legal policy, wrote on the company’s blog.

Kessler said while Twitter “may not be allowed to provide notice to users in all situations or win every fight we take up on behalf of our users,” they plan to remain committed to being transparent about government requests they receive and how they have addressed them.

Photo courtesy of Scott Beale via Flickr

Paradigm Shift

Fahad Nazer:

The government’s efforts to diversify the economy, create jobs, and replace the estimated nine million expatriates with Saudis could very well pay dividends and help ameliorate some of the hardships about which an an increasing number of Saudis are complaining. However, being the world’s biggest, single repository of crude oil — and the birthplace of Islam — does not guarantee a Utopian existence in which the public sector operates like clockwork, government planners are all visionaries, and for-profit enterprises “answer to a higher source.”

Nevertheless, Saudi leaders need to stress that while they might have been thought of as “shepherds” looking after a “flock” when the “ruling bargain” between them and the people was first struck, it might be instructive to think of them now as mere “custodians” of the county with the people at large in the driver’s seat. It is not a coincidence that “the people are our greatest asset” has become a mantra of sorts among Saudi officials. This message will have to be amplified and repeated.

Conservative Writer Calls for Molesting Women Cashiers

A Saudi writer has urged his Twitter followers to sexually molest women hired to work as cashiers in big grocery stores, the latest backlash from conservatives who want to roll back limited social and economic reforms launched in the world’s leading oil exporter.

Abdullah Mohamed al-Dawood, who writes self-help books including one called The Joy of Life, has stirred fierce debate this week via the internet microblogging service with the use of the hashtag #harass-female-cashiers, to press for Saudi women to be forced to stay at home to protect their chastity.

Al-Dawood is the same conservative writer who has previously sparked another controversy when he said that baby girls should be fully covered using the face veil to protect them from sexual molestation.

Mobily Can Monitor Saudi Users of WhatsApp, US Researcher Says

Saudi mobile operator Mobily approached a US software engineer to help them organize a program to intercept messages sent via apps like WhatApp, Twitter and Viber. Moxie Marlinspike wrote Monday on his blog that Mobily told him they already have a “WhatsApp interception prototype working” and that they were surprised how easy it was to make.

Saudi Arabia said in March that it could block several messaging apps because they do not meet the country’s regulatory requirements and laws. The Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC), the local regulator of telecoms, said in a statement it has asked licensed mobile operators in to work with developers of these apps to ensure that they meet the regulatory requirements.

This step by CITC raised concerns about government surveillance of communication on these apps. Local media reported at the time that CITC has asked the telecom companies to do what is required to monitor apps like Skype, Viper and WhatsApp, and that if communication through such apps cannot be monitored due to encryption than the telecoms will have to block access to them.

When Marlinspike told Mobily that he was not interested in the job for privacy reasons, a manager at the Saudi telecom company told him that the program to monitor users data on messaging apps was not about “freedom and respecting privacy” but rather about combating terrorism. The manager even went further to suggest that, by not taking the job, Marlinspike will be “indirectly helping” the terrorists “who curb the freedom with their brutal activities.”

According to Wikipedia, Moxie Marlinspike is the pseudonym of a computer security researcher based in San Francisco. He was the co-founder of Whisper Systems, a mobile security and privacy company that was acquired by Twitter in 2011. Marlinspike said he hopes that by publishing the story about Mobily approaching him to monitor users we can have a conversation about what can be done to stop such practices.

“Really, it’s no shock that Saudi Arabia is working on this,” he wrote. “but it is interesting to get fairly direct evidence that it’s happening.”

Through CITC, the Saudi government has earlier this year forced mobile operators to add a user’s National ID number while topping up mobile phone credit. The government decision to link mobile prepaid cards to National IDs was justified as a security measure to prevent criminal uses of mobile phones. Linking mobile numbers to IDs means it is now harder to obtain numbers for temporary use, aka “burners,” which makes surveillance easier for authorities.

In March, English-language daily Arab News pulled a story about plans by CITC to link Twitter accounts of Saudi citizens to their national IDs. The newspaper has not explained why they pulled the front page story which said the plan was inspired by CITC’s successful implementation of the government decision to add the user’s ID numbers for topping up mobile credit.

Social networks and messaging apps are extremely popular in Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that there are 4 million active Saudi users and Twitter and as much as 12 million users of WhatsApp. In a country with many restrictions on free speech, these apps provided new platforms for citizens to communicate and exchange messages away from government censorship.

Even though there was no update from CITC since they released their statement last month regarding surveillance on messaging apps, the fact that Mobily has been working to design such tools and hire engineers to work on them suggest that the telecoms might have chosen to work quietly with the government to monitor these apps, despite protests by the their customers and local human rights groups.

Al-Hayat daily reported that two Saudi human rights organizations warned that the government plan to monitor messaging apps could infringe on international accords that the government has signed. A spokesman for the official Human Rights Commission (HRC) told the newspaper they stand by citizens’ rights to protect their information privacy. “Denying citizens access to these tools under any justifications is something HRC does not agree with,” the spokesman said.

UPDATE: Mobily has denied asking Moxie for help. “We never communicate with hackers,” the company said. “Moreover, it is not our job to spy on customers.”

Shoura Member Sues Popular Cleric Over Retweet

Shoura Council member Issa Al-Gheith has filed a defamation suit against well-known Dawa activist Muhammad Al-Oraifi at the Riyadh District Court on Saturday.

Al-Gheith took legal action after Al-Oraifi retweeted a poem that Al-Gheith considered defamatory and insulting. Al-Gheith gave Al-Oraifi 24 hours to apologize for the retweet but the latter did not respond at which point he went to court and filed the lawsuit on the basis of Article 5.3 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law.

This is the first case of its kind brought before a court of law, according to court sources.

In addition to being a current member of the Shoura Council, al-Ghath is a former judge who supposedly knows how the legal system works. The fact that al-Ghaith is suing al-Arefi because the latter retweeted the allegedly defamatory poem could set a precedent. It would be also interesting to see how the presiding judge in this case will deal with the fact that al-Arefi only retweeted the poem and did not tweeted it himself.

This is not the first time that al-Ghaith has taken legal action over tweets. The Shoura member has previously said he is suing conservative writer Abdullah al-Dawood for allegedly offending him on Twitter.

What He Said and Why He Said It

Mohamed Hemish on the Friday sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the Saudi Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where he warned against Twitter:

His speech contained the word “nation” at least 10 times. The speech’s topic clearly has been introduced to him by the Saudi government officials, who are thinking about limiting twitter access only to users who submit ID for registration.  

Mecca’s Friday player’s speech is watched by millions of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and across the world in addition to people that attend it in Mecca. This audience consists mainly of fathers, mothers and uncles of the young Muslims who are using twitter and supposedly negatively affected by it. So those parents, who might not be familiar with twitter, are going to be swayed by the arguments Imam Al-Sudais made which would make them support a government action against twitter. Devoting 6 minutes of Friday prayer’s speech to highlight the threats twitter poses on Saudi nation shows how seriously Saudi government is hurting because of twitter and how determined they are about tackling the “twitter” problem.

Many Saudis on Twitter complained that the Saudi Imam should not use the Grand Mosque pulpit, a platform watched by Muslims around the world, to promote the government line on internal issues.