02/02/2007, 00.00
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Censorship accompanies rapid internet growth in Arab states

There are 26 million users who welcome the internet as a means of freedom of thought and information. But censorship is blocking entire websites and tens of millions of blogs, often banning everything that smacks of dissent from the powers that be. Despite widespread interest, the Internet industry is not drawing enough investors.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – The Internet is spreading fast in Arab countries especially among youth who see it as a means to communicate with the rest of the world and to talk freely without obstacles. But censorship is also increasing, blocking entire websites in a bid to maintain control.

The number of internet users in the Arab world has risen from 14 million in June 2004 to 26 million in December 2006. Users are mostly youth and middle-aged men. A survey undertaken by “The Initiative for an Open Arab Internet”, a group comprising lawyers and journalists, concluded that the internet is used to chat, communicate, in one’s free time and to make acquisitions. But it is also used for swift, direct and freer dissemination of messages, news and ideas. However, the survey said that just as websites are growing in number, those “blocked” by Arab censorship are also on the rise.

According to Al Ayham al Saleh, an information technology expert, censorship applied to the Internet is the same as that applied to the press: no longer control aimed at prevention, it holds users and websites fully accountable for any news they post. Arab governments block sites on the pretext that they “advocate terrorism” but there is no precise definition for terrorism so anything can be defined as such, starting from political dissent.

Censors are not concerned about the consequences of their moves to block sites: Al Ayham said that a website blocked in Syria, called Blogsbat, contained 50 million personal blogs, a wealth of information and contacts for Syrian users that was “eliminated”.

The survey found that the internet enjoys substantial freedom in Lebanon alone, while other governments are “very concerned” about a means of communication and information that can reach people’s homes and attracts so much interest, especially among youth.

Religious websites are forever on the increase: amongst the most popular 100 websites, there are 10 with Muslim extremist leanings, not least thanks to the tendency of governments to close an eye to these sites and to oppose sites with political or secular content and those of human rights organisations.

The suspicion of governments has led to the Internet industry not living up to its potential: foreign companies are not tempted to invest and only a few states (like Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates) are in favour of expansion. For example, providers in Syria generally do not link up with other networks or with neighbouring countries, while the industry is controlled by foreign firms, and no one cares to redress the situation.

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