Internet Censorship Laws in Saudi Arabia

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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“The thought of not being able to express oneself through the internet without repercussions might seem implausible; however, it is an ongoing problem in countries like Saudi Arabia. Currently, Saudi Arabia holds a score of 73 out of 100 for its Internet Freedom Score, which sets it as “not free” (“Saudi Arabia Internet Score”). Citizens are prohibited from visiting and accessing many parts of the web due to governmental restrictions based on immoral and “radically” opinionated content. This limits their freedom of speech and according to the journal, “Social Media and the Movement of Ideas”, “There are repressive regimes when anonymity is a prerequisite of freedom, and occasions in democracies when anonymity must be preserved” (Kessler).

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These restrictions strip the rights of people making them configured to authoritative rule. They have no say in what is unjust. Civil Rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once declared, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”). This makes the subjugated yearn for a sense of free speech. This brings up the question: How has the act of censorship through the internet brought a sense of defiance for Saudi Arabia’s residents? By looking through the political, social, and the ethical aspects of this dilemma, the call for reform and insurgency (while also relying on private institutions) will maximize the push from governmental internet oppression.

Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is ahead of many countries in the region due to governmental promotion of the use of the internet. Even though it may seem as if the country is progressing to a state of international superiority, it is still inhibited due to their severe restrictions on internet content. According to the article “ Internet Censorship in Arab Countries: Religious and Moral Aspects”, “In Arab countries, the positions of Islam in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are not only strong, but are fundamental, and have determined the trends of social development over many centuries. At the same time, the very problem of human rights, in general, and freedom of speech and the right of access to information, in particular, are fairly new to Muslim legal thought” (Shishkina and Issaev). Many are quick to point fingers at the religion of Islam for Saudi Arabia’s intense regulations; however, if given further consideration, the fear instilled by absolute monarchy shows the fear of rebellion from suppressed subjects. Islam may play a role in the bowdlerization of this multimedia instrument, but the desire for complete control is the real motivation for this despotism.

Focusing on the political aspect, Saudi Arabia is infamously known as an absolute monarchy with Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud taking full control as the king. With a 60.7 on the economic freedom index and an above moderate risk rating, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a negative connotation for a “troublesome” nation with discrepancies that stand out (“Saudi Arabia: Government”). With “Basic Law” as the system of governance, there are a total of 83 articles based on Sharia Law. Not only does basic law play a huge impact on enforcement, but Saudi Arabia Anti Cyber Crime Law also states that “any person who has possession or produces material impinging public order, religious values, and public morals through network or computers can be subjected to imprisonment” (“Anti-Cybercrime Law”). This demonstrates the severity of holding the nation has on its people. Just the expression of resentment or disagreement can lead to repercussions. This strips one from their freedom of speech. Not only can the Saudi government take action in their own jurisdiction, but they can also indict in external affairs. Comedian and host of the show, Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj, recently released an episode that was asked to be removed by Saudi ruling due to governmental criticism. He attacked their involvement in highly shady activities. In the following episode, Minhaj jokingly states, “Of all the Netflix Originals, the only show that Saudi Arabia thinks violates “Muslim values” is the one hosted by a Muslim” (“”Saudi Arabia + Censorship In China.””). He then shifts to a serious tone into which he explains he has full freedom to make criticisms while actual Saudi residents cannot. If they do, unimaginable consequences could be inflicted upon them.

The Saudi government may believe that their actions are justifiable because they are looking out for the security and safety of their nation. However, at what cost is the feeling of soundness justifiable? From an ethical outlook, the stripping away of one’s privacy and speech is going against basic human rights. Going back to civil rights activist, Dr. King, he affirms, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”). Dr. King felt a sense of violation due to the racist ideas that were inflicted on him and fellow African Americans. The same thing applies to Saudi residents. When a group puts down a person or society based on unjust reasons, this is attacking their basic rights. In a journal by Madeline Carr, Associate Professor of International Relations and Cyber Security at UCL STEaPP (UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Public Policy), she expounds, “Internet freedom is rapidly becoming understood as a normative framework for how the Internet should function and be used globally. Recently declared a human right by the United Nations,..” (Carr). When an intergovernmental organization states that people should be able to use the internet in their desire without overstepping supervision, but one country won’t allow it due to their preferences, it shows that Saudi Arabia is extremely apathetic for their citizens.

Nevertheless, before putting the entire blame on the Arabian government for their questionable curtailment, there are instances where it’s sensible that such limitations were placed. In August of 2017, a petrochemical company in Saudi Arabia was hit by a cyber assault to trigger an explosion, not just with an intent to eradicate data. (Perlroth and Krauss). Officials believe that the attacks were meant to inflict lasting damage while also leaving a political message. It is also stated that authorities believe there was an intent to bring harm or even death to civilians during this attack. In a Jubail Cyber Security Conference, Director of the National Center for Cyber Security at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Dr. Basel Alomair, said: “Saudi Arabia was subjected to 60 million cyber attacks in 2015, meaning the kingdom witnessed 164,000 cyber attacks a day” (Al-Hussein). The number of attacks brings justification to the government’s response to internet access. However, is it still fair to violate the rights of 34 million people to the point where they can receive serious punishments for surfing the web?

In February 2012, Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr was a Saudi Arabian political prisoner who was sentenced to death by crucifixion for using his Blackberry to invite other protestors to the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprising. He was brutally tortured and forced to false confession (“Saudi Arabia- Stop the Crucifixion of Ali Al-Nimr”). The Saudi Arabian government justified his death by stating he violated the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Woefully, this is a common occurrence in which numerous activists are murdered for ideals not supported by Saudi rule. A notable death that has caught the attention of international news recently is the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a writer for the Washington Post who was under fire for criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On September 28, the journalist was in the consulate in Istanbul in which he was reportedly strangled and dismembered. Saudi officials denied any involvement but it’s later been covered that this attack was planned in advance (“”Jamal Khashoggi: All you need to know”). The horrific murder shows the extent to which Saudi officials will go to silence citizens for speaking out injustice. This is not a fine being charged or impressment; this is cold-blooded murder to tranquilize the opinionated which brings social panic. A culture of confidentiality is brought upon residents. To survive, one must do it in secrecy. Referring back to Kessler’s journal, “anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality” (Kessler). If people can hide behind a barrier, they can say whatever they want to. In countries with freedom of speech and press, that barrier is not necessary. This not the case for Saudi residents. The so-called “barrier” is the only way for individuals to express opinions without bloodshed. A change is required to let the oppressed have a voice in a society where ideas and preferences can lead to dismemberment.

With full awareness of the consequences of unauthorized web content, citizens still turn to the internet. The people of Saudi Arabia have already been combatting their limited internet access through VPNs. The VPN server will be located in a different region which allows the user to access content that would be restricted to them in their accommodation. However, this is not enough. Continuously hiding in fear will not lead to any resolution. More and more restrictions will be implemented. A major step to reform is in the hand of private companies. Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton conveys, “The first challenge is for the private sector to embrace its role in protecting Internet freedom because whether you like it or not, the choices that private companies make have an impact on what governments can and can’t do” (Clinton). If these private media companies can control the restriction governments can have on their platforms, then they have the ability to eradicate censorship values that could be potentially intertwined into their merchandise. A government can control the people, but the actual content originator can have a say in how their product is used. It is extremely difficult to suddenly change a monarchy’s rules and regulations; however, acting out and speaking against this over usage of dominance can bring a sense of insurgency to residents. Many will realize that their rights to privacy and freedom are being stripped away. The call for activists to speak out will bring the attention of thousands. If people are willing to issue change, then they must recognize the problem and call for reform. Not only should the residents of Saudi Arabia demand change, but people from all over the world should also acknowledge this ongoing issue. Ignoring it is just as bad as the absolute ruler who is killing people for their opinions. We must also demand the government of Saudi Arabia adhere to the requests of basic human rights.

The residents of Saudi Arabia feel defiance toward these lucrative internet censorship laws. With a strict political monarchy monitoring every move and accusing individuals of online wrongdoing due to ideals not matching theirs, citizens live in a state of fear due to the unforeseeable consequences they must face. The use of “national security” and order are not ethical excusable reasons for stripping one’s basic rights. Not to mention, the murdering of those who seem unfit to their viewpoints is far from moral. By giving more power to private platforms and bringing attention to a movement to speak out against these injustices and call for reform, citizens have the potential to live in a world where they don’t have to fear for their life due to a post or Google search. People will then have the ability to express their views without repercussions.”

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Internet Censorship Laws in Saudi Arabia. (2021, Apr 14). Retrieved from