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Thursday, July 8, 1999 Published at 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK

World: Middle East

Net clampdown criticised

Pornography: An excuse for excessive control?

By the BBC's Hala Saleh

Internet growth in the Middle East and North Africa has been stunted by countries fearing it will undermine their control over information, a Human Rights Watch report says.

The BBC's Roger Hardy: "Libya, Iraq and Syria all deny the Internet to their citizens"
It says politically sensitive Websites are reported to have been actively blocked in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

The organisation says it is generally impossible to prove such allegations, but it refers to the case of an engineer detained for e-mailing information out of Bahrain.

The organisation's Middle East and North Africa director, Hanny Megally, says most countries have not yet implemented effective ways of restricting access.

But he says they are certainly talking about it.

''Some countries have moved early. In Saudi Arabia they are talking of a proxy server which will allow governments to block the user, scramble the information, even send warning signs to the user.

''They are considering sending a message saying: "You're entering a banned Website. Stop now.''

Saudi controls

In Saudi Arabia, access is already channelled through a main server based in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

Bahr al Badr, head of the International Internet Company in Saudi Arabia, says the system is meant to filter out unsuitable information.

''The Internet has a lot of material that's very bad and could be damaging, like pornographic pictures for example. The system is meant to control such things and prevent most of them,'' he adds.

Porn sites

But Human Rights Watch says pornography is used as an excuse for excessive control.

It says central restriction on pornography is the focus of ambitious systems in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

It says one that was once proposed by Saudi Arabia involves preventing people using any addresses other than those on a pre-prepared list.

But Badr al Badr says this is not true. ''All Websites are allowed, but there are some locations filtered out.

''The other system is the 'white list' system, which is not used in the kingdom. This is when a person can only enter certain sites.

''Only sites on the black list are banned, and most of these are pornographic anyway.''

Unfettered access

But not all countries in the region are clamping down on the Internet.

Human Rights Watch singles out Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon, which it says allow people unfettered access.

The organisation advocates that governments leave it up to the user to acquire filters for pornography. Bahrain for example allows this.

But the response of officials in countries which adopt nationwide filters is that parents in Western countries are now calling for similar measures from their own governments to protect their children.

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