The tool that sidestepped Arab censorship

Arab Internet users are critical of the fact that major Western enterprises provide totalitarian regimes with technology that enables Internet surveillance and censorship. They also have a different point of view in terms of the type of content that should be censored. These are a few of the conclusions drawn in Walid Al-Saqaf’s doctoral thesis at Örebro University. This interdisciplinary thesis discusses a tool – Alkasir – with which to get round censorship and the users of the tool have been interviewed about their views on censorship and freedom of expression.

When the Arab Spring started, the Internet played an important role in the way news was spread. Regimes tried to stop the news flow with the help of various censorship interventions. This doctoral thesis describes how Walid Al-Saqaf designed the program Alkasir, which not only sidestepped censorship, but also provided a unique material with which to examine how censorship works in the Arab world.

– These regimes are very much aware of the power of the Internet. The degree of censorship during the Arab Spring was clearly linked to the degree of political turbulence and activity, says Walid Al-Saqaf, who has looked into censorship and the ways in which it has been sidestepped in the Arab world from the latter part of 2010 until 2012. He has particularly focused his study on Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

Unusual background

It was via the Internet that Walid discovered the Master’s programme in Global Journalism at Örebro University, of which he is a graduate. Born in Yemen, Walid has a Bachelor's degree in computer engineering and with his experience as a journalist in his native country, he set out to develop a website for political news. This was looked upon with disapproval by the Yemeni government and he noticed that censorship blocked the users of the website.

This caused him to develop Alkasir, software with which it was possible to get round censorship. He uses the term “split tunnelling” to describe how it works. When you are trying to connect to a censored website, the program detects this and redirects you to an anonymous server which in turn establishes a connection with the censored webpage.

Arab Spring

His thesis is strongly linked to the period leading up to and the events during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, there was far-reaching Internet censorship during 2010, which was detected by Alkasir. The censorship did not however extend to which could be employed to mobilise resistance. When the dictator Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011, censorship ceased and the use of Alkasir plummeted.

The unrest spread to Egypt where both Facebook and Twitter were blocked, which led to an increased demand for Alkasir. Similarly, it was possible to see how different events which tightened censorship during the Syrian Uprising, such as when large numbers of defectors gave up their support of the regime or when the Free Syrian Army mounted an offensive, caused a surge in the use of Alkasir.

All the time, Alkasir has remained free for all to use. No marketing efforts have been made and there is no advertising on the website. The fact that it is independent and non-commercial increases its credibility among its users, says Walid Al-Saqaf. Experiences from using the software are shared online, becoming a “crowdsourcing” of sorts which has enabled Walid to interview the users by means of web surveys. One of the research questions concerned the nature of Arab views on censorship and the informants were asked about censorship within eleven different areas.

Different views on censorship

– It turns out that while non-Arab users disagreed with censorship of anti-religious content and were divided in terms of nudity and pornography, Arab informants were strong supporters of censorship within these areas. On the other hand, opposition against censorship of the expression of political views was stronger among Arabs than among non-Arabs.

Non-Arabs objected to censorship within seven of the eleven areas, while Arabs only objected to three. Walid claims that this can be explained by the Islamic influence on Arab culture. By not allowing Alkasir to become a tool with which to access pornography for instance, the chances of exposing software users to personal risks and reputation problems could be reduced.

Weak points

Tools such as Alkasir, designed to circumvent censorship, are however no ready-made solutions, there are weak points as well. During the Arab Spring, it has become increasingly important to guarantee anonymity, privacy and security. Regimes seeking to silence their critics put an increasing degree of resources into doing so. At the same time there is also the risk that criminals use the anonymity offered to cover up their activities.

Among the responses to his questions, Walid can see a critical attitude towards the West. While the Western World speaks of democracy and openness, it is actually businesses from the West who provide, for example Saudi Arabia, with tools to censor the Internet.

Free speech and its possibilities

– It is clear from the responses given, that Arabs do not want to be pressured into accepting Western rules or values, says Walid Al-Saqaf. All through history, they have experienced threats against and pressure being brought on their governments, an approach which has seldom been a successful one. But my thesis shows that many people in the Arab world have long wanted the possibilities offered by freedom of expression and have now begun the work of reclaiming the right to speak freely without running the risk of reprisals.

– It is important to explain that the Internet is a global network which unites people, where geography and law are of no importance and where national boundaries are simply an illusion. The challenge for the future is to bring Internet censorship onto the global agenda. It is not a local domestic issue, it is something that concerns the whole world.

Text: Lars Westberg
Photo: Kicki Nilsson