Internet Censorship in Saudi Arabia. When and Why?

Countries Mar 16, 2021

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is located opposite Iran, on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf. The country occupies almost 80% of the Arabian Peninsula territory, and for the most part, consists of semi-desert and desert territories. Saudi Arabia is one of the hottest countries, so the overwhelming majority of the population is concentrated in large cities on the Persian Gulf coasts and the Red Sea. However, such a benefit of civilization as Internet access is not available throughout the whole territory of Saudi Arabia.

The national top-level domain ".sa" appeared in 1994. Technically, the Internet did not become available until 1999. In 2001, ADSL Internet came to Saudi Arabia.

Nowadays, several providers are operating in the kingdom. The largest and oldest one is STC (Saudi Telecom Company). Until about 2004, STC was generally a monopoly on the telecommunications market. However, the company is still the sole owner of the phone lines, so STC gets double the pay from all ADSL users: first, people pay to activate ADSL service on the phone line, and then ISPs pay for the lease of the lines.

How many people use the Internet in Saudi Arabia?
Despite the relatively belated arrival of the Internet to Saudi Arabia, the number of users grew rapidly. In 1999, there were about 100,000 Internet users in the country. In 2001, the number reached 1 million, and at the end of 2013, the number of Internet users was 16.5 million (55% of the population). According to the Statista data for 2020, about 30.5 million people (96% of the population) already use the Internet in Saudi Arabia.

Who is responsible for censorship in Saudi Arabia?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The ruling dynasty has established quite strict rules and restrictions in Saudi Arabia concerning morality, education, ideology, and control over disseminating information. So it is not surprising that book publishing, all media, and Internet access are censored. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for it.

When did internet censorship appear in Saudi Arabia?
Formally, Internet censorship appeared in Saudi Arabia in February 2001. But in fact, objectionable sites began to be banned almost as soon as Internet access appeared in the country. Today, all Internet traffic in the kingdom passes through proxy servers.

Which sites are blocked in Saudi Arabia?
Traffic filters are applied based on a blacklist of sites containing "immoral" materials (mainly pornography, LGBT support, and gambling), as well as sites containing political and religious materials. For example, many articles from the English and Arabic versions of Wikipedia are blocked. It is also believed that filtering and analysis of search queries are performed on proxy servers to find out the current mood among the kingdom's inhabitants.

Are there any blocked apps in Saudi Arabia?
Until September 2017, IP telephony services provided by Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and other similar platforms were banned in Saudi Arabia.

The authorities feared that the opposition forces, on the spectrum from pro-democratic to jihadists, would be able to maintain international contacts without the knowledge of the special services since Internet communications are difficult to intercept.

But now, citizens of the country can safely use the voice Internet connection.

Saudi Arabia is one of the leading religious censorship countries on the Internet. In general, it cannot be said that censorship on the Saudi Internet is atrocious. Subjectively, it is stricter than in China but better than in Iran and North Korea.