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Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Saudis block 2,000 websites
Saudi net users, AP
Net use is catching on in Saudi Arabia
BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

If you tried to look at Rolling Stone magazine on the web from Saudi Arabia, you would find that access has been denied.

You would not have much luck either if you tried the American women's lifestyle site

These sites are among the 2,000 blocked by the Saudi Government, a Harvard Law School has found.

Most of the blacklisted sites were sexually explicit or about religion. But also caught in the net were sites about women, health, drugs and pop culture.

"We found blockage of quite a bit of content beyond political content and pornography," said Ben Edelman, one of the researchers behind the report.

"We found the blocking of content about women's history or sites about bathing suits. So if you want to buy something to swim in, they seem to treat that as if it were pornographic in Saudi Arabia," Mr Edelman told the BBC programme Go Digital.

Electronic controls

For the study, Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman at Harvard tested 64,000 websites, with the full collaboration of the Saudi Government.

Sample of sites blocked
Arab American Roman Catholic Community
Islamic Cultural Library
Beach Queen swimwear
Warner Brothers Records
"Saudi Arabia was willing to let us test their proxy servers," said Mr Edelman.

"They were willing to connect to their version of the internet to let us find what they allow and what they don't. Most other countries have not been willing when asked."

The Saudis are also open about their censorship of the web. If a site is blacklisted, the user is directed to a page that explicitly informs him or her that access to the site has been denied.

This contrasts to other countries like China, where a surfer simply gets an error message. It means they do not know if the site is blocked or if there is something wrong with the connection.

Sexually explicit

Saudi Arabia filters all internet traffic through a central array of proxy servers maintained by the Internet Services Unit (ISU). The servers route and filter all internet traffic.

"Our internet service is unique in the way it preserves our Islamic values, filtering the internet content to prevent the materials that contradict with our beliefs or may influence our culture is one of ISU tasks," says the ISU site.

Ben Edelman of Harvard Law School
Edelman: 64,000 websites tested
The researchers found that many of the blocked sites were sexually explicit.

"It comes as no surprise that the same countries that would be concerned about certain books and newspapers crossing their borders would also be concerned to find similar information crossing their borders electronically over the internet," said Mr Edelman.

But sites about religion, humour and music also figured prominently, among them film studio, Warner Brothers.

"We weren't expecting them to block big California media companies," he said. "It's possible there is something particular offensive the Saudi Government about a singer's lyrics or a musician hostile to their politics."

Also blocked were most of the major personal homepage domains, including and, as well as sites about women's rights, perhaps unsurprising in a country where women are not even allowed to drive.

Net controls

Anyone trying to get around the censorship would have trouble, as the researchers found that the Saudis also blocked proxy servers allowing a way around the filtering restrictions.

There are plenty of forces trying to constraint who does what on the internet

Ben Edelman, Harvard Law School
"Even if you manage to find a proxy server that works on one day, you never really know if its going to be there the next day," said Mr Edelman.

"Perhaps more seriously, since all accesses are logged, it's quite possible that the Saudi Government could be watching what you are doing."

Saudi Arabia is one of dozens of governments around the world trying to control what their citizens see online.

But only a few, such as Vietnam, China and the United Arab Emirates, actually attempt to filter their entire national internet traffic.

"There was an instance when it looked like the internet would be a free source of information," said Mr Edelman.

"At the present time, there are plenty of forces trying to constraint who does what on the internet. It is looking like the internet of tomorrow might be very different from the internet of today."

See also:

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