When an anti-Islam video sparked deadly protests across the Muslim world last month, it raised new questions about the role of the Internet in a divided society. How do we regulate a medium that opens up global lines of communication? What happens when acceptable discourse in one country is considered blasphemy in another?
And if free speech leads to a loss of human life, should it be abridged?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of many nations searching for answers to these tough questions. And as one of the most tightly controlled conservative Muslim countries on earth, it has quite a stake in the issue.
The kingdom recently called for an international discussion to lay down new guidelines for Internet accessibility. This marks a new approach for Saudi Arabia, which has already resorted to drastic measures to limit free communication within its own borders.
The current uproar began in September, when a Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) YouTube clip produced in the U.S. was dubbed into Arabic and went viral in the Middle East. The video, called "Innocence of Muslims," was created by an Egyptian Coptic Christian residing in California.
The 55-year-old Mark Basseley Youssef -- who was once known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and produced the video under the pseudonym Sam Bacile -- first uploaded the clip in July. It portrayed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, as a buffoon and sexual deviant. Protests erupted in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Sudan and Oman. Dozens have died as a result of the ensuing clashes.
In Saudi Arabia, the government demanded that Google block its citizens’ access to the video. Google complied on Sept. 19; it had already done the same for Libya, Egypt, India and Indonesia.
For Saudi Arabia, that was nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of URLs are currently blocked by domestic telecommunications companies, including "immoral" sites that feature pornographic material, as well as sites that allegedly threaten national security.
This Internet censorship is line with the kingdom’s muzzling of its national media. Overall restrictions have worsened since the Arab Spring popular revolutions of 2011, one of which occurred -- but did not succeed -- in neighboring Bahrain.
Outside the Box
Saudi Arabia is now seeking a broader approach -- not only to prevent its people from seeing the "Innocence of Muslims" clip, but to head off similar incidents in the future.
The country is looking ahead to the World Telecommunication/Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum, or WTPF. This annual gathering is presented by the International Telecommunications Union, a branch of the United Nations.
The WTPF will convene for the fifth time next year in Geneva, and the ITU has begun preparing the necessary documents. One of these is the Secretary-General’s Report, which says it “aims to provide a basis for discussion at the Policy Forum, incorporating the contributions of ITU Member States and Sector Members.”
Three drafts of this far-reaching report have already been sent to participating countries. When Saudi Arabia received the version released on July 3, its representatives took issue with a sentence on page 7, which reads as follows:
“Some take the view that the Internet, as a decentralized and open system, must be allowed to enable the world’s citizens to connect freely and express themselves consistent with fundamental principles of freedom of expression, while taking into consideration national security or public order, or public health or morals.”
Editors in Saudi Arabia highlighted the piece and inserted a lengthy comment in the margin, and this amended version was sent back to the ITU on Aug. 1.
“Bearing in mind that countries cannot apply their own laws to acts in another country, there is a crying need for international collaboration to address ‘freedom of expression,’ which clearly disregards public order,” said the comment.
It went on to denounce the "Innocence of Muslims" video, noting that it was “created with the clear intent of conveying hatred.”
“This behavior,” concluded the Saudi comment, “must be addressed by states in a collaborative and cooperative environment and strongly underscores the need for enhanced cooperation.”
A New Direction
It is important to note that the word "censor" does not come up once in the entire 27-page draft, nor in any the comments made by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s comments will be addressed during the WTPF in Geneva next year, but for the time being, Saudi Arabia’s recommendations remain vague outlines rather than concrete plans.
What the comments signify is a greater interest in joining the global discussion regarding Internet regulation, something the WTPF was designed to facilitate.
If Saudi Arabia’s current strict regulations on free speech are any indication, next year’s forum is unlikely to yield changes that will satisfy the government’s desire for control. But joining a global conversation should open up some important new lines of communication.
In some ways, then, this is encouraging news for those who oppose the kingdom’s strict controls over its society.
In a concurrent development, Saudi Arabia is reducing the power of its feared religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- or, more colloquially, the mutawa. These police, who enforce strict dress codes and prosecute Saudis who exhibit allegedly sinful behaviors, will adhere to new codes and refrain from making arrests and raids, according to a statement from the group’s leader, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, on Oct. 3.
These events do not signify a brand new day for free speech in Saudi Arabia -- far from it -- but they could be early signs of an emerging pattern. Censored though it is, the Internet has already enabled a freer exchange of ideas in Saudi Arabia than it has ever seen in modern times. And that trend is likely to continue.
The WTPF will give Saudi Arabia a chance to air its concerns in an international forum next May. The world will be watching to see how the promise of global telecommunications can be made to coexist with divergent cultural norms in various countries around the globe.