What Is Wrong With Wikipedia?

Hassna’a Mokhtar, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2006-07-19 03:00

JEDDAH, 19 July 2006 — Saudi site-blocking officials can’t seem to decide what to do with Wikipedia, a popular online public-access encyclopedia that amasses information on virtually everything under the sun. In recent weeks the site has been blocked, unblocked, blocked and unblocked again. Yesterday the site was accessible, but earlier in the week it wasn’t.

This seemingly arbitrary site-blocking method has called into question the credibility of the Saudi filtering policy for Internet sites.

Researchers have concluded that the Saudi site-filtering system is erratic and overdone. An attempt to view a blocked page inside the Kingdom will return a page that says: “Access to the requested URL is not allowed. Please fill out an unblocking request if you believe the requested page should not be blocked.”

At the bottom of the page there is another line: “Please send other sites you feel should be blocked using the blocking request form.”

Hanan Al-Harbi, a 24 year-old English literature university graduate, said she had had problems accessing certain web pages.

“I come across blocked beneficial web sources and comply with the ‘Please fill out an unblocking request if you believe the requested page should not be blocked’ rule, yet I have never received a response or noticed an action,” Al-Harbi said. “Does anyone ever read the complaints people send, or is it just an excuse for the terrible service provided?”

(Subscribers with costlier satellite-based Internet access are not subject to governmental site blocking. Satellite access circumvents the line-based access provided by the Saudi Telecom Co.)

King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), which operates the country’s centralized Internet gateway, has made available on its website an Arabic-only guide for Internet use in Saudi Arabia along with the local content filtering policy, in English and Arabic. The latter states the following:

“Pursuant to the Council of Ministers’ decree all sites that contain content in violation of Islamic tradition or national regulations shall be blocked. Other non-pornographic sites are only blocked based upon direct requests from the security bodies within the government. The KACST has no authority in the selection of such sites and its role is limited to carrying out the directions of these security bodies.”

Mansour Al-Otaiby, the KACST spokesman, said the city is not responsible for making decisions on which sites to block.

“KACST is a technical organization that receives blocking and unblocking requests from the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC),” he told Arab News. “The city’s engineers then work according to the instructions given by the commission. KACST is no longer responsible of the block-unblock decision making process or receiving Internet users’ complaints. The CITC is.”

The CITC would not respond to numerous attempts by Arab News to learn why Wikipedia has been scrutinized and how decisions are made on which sites to block.

Eyas Al-Hajry, general manager of the Internet Service Unit (ISU) at KACST, told the daily Al-Riyadh in an article published on Monday that the ISU will be transferred to the CITC in the coming months. He also said that there is some inefficiency in the blocking department — and that mistakes happen.

Harvard University’s OpenNet Initiative, which monitors governmental site filtering worldwide, conducted three rounds of testing of Saudi Arabia’s Internet systems between 2002 and 2004. Researchers Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman created a list of over 60,000 URLs by targeting the most popular results from queries to the Google and Yahoo! search engines. They searched for sensitive content, including such topics as the Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the 1991 Iraq war, drugs, terrorism, Judaism and higher education.

The researchers compiled a list of 2,038 sites that were blocked in the Kingdom. Many of the sites, especially pornographic ones, draw upon constantly updating lists provided by third-party site-filtering software, such as Smartfilter, produced by the US-based Secure Computing Corp. Other sites are picked by Saudi monitors and added to the blacklist. The researchers were unable to conclude precisely how the ISU determines which sites to block that aren’t automatically blocked by the software. The researchers also concluded that the Internet filtering regime in Saudi Arabia concentrates on a few specific areas: pornography, drugs, gambling, circumvention tools (sites that offer ways to access blocked sites) and religious topics.

Earlier this year, Google’s page-translation service was blocked when it was discovered that it could be used as a proxy to access content by entering the blocked URL. The popular information technology blog boingboing.net is currently blocked because one entry from a few years ago offers information about how to surf the Internet anonymously.

These sites are blocked relatively successfully, according to the study. However, the researchers added that Saudi Internet filtering also demonstrates the risks inherent even in a technologically adept blocking regime: arbitrary and subjective blocking, inconsistency and loss of personal control over access to web-based content.

Reporters Without Borders published an article in June 2004 addressing the issue reaching the same conclusions as the OpenNet study. The organization wrote a letter requesting the lifting of the ban on Gaymiddleast.com, a non-pornographic site that addresses a controversial theme.

According to the report, Eyas Al-Hajery, the head of the ISU at the time, said in 2004 that the site would be approved “as no pornographic content was found.” However, a check of accessibility yesterday showed that the site is currently blocked.

The KACST website has an article on Internet filtering that begins with two verses from the Holy Qur’an: “He said: ‘O my Lord! The prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me: Unless Thou turn away their snare from me, I should (in my youthful folly) feel inclined toward them and join the ranks of the ignorant.’ So his Lord hearkened to him (in his prayer), and turned away from him their snare: Verily He heareth and knoweth (all things).” (Yusuf: 33-43)

The author of the article, Mishaal Al-Kadhi, said he used the two verses as a way of emphasizing the importance of web blocking to prevent social damage caused by web content that lacks virtue.

Ghassan Al-Gain, the 50-year-old author of the book “The Discipline of Dialogue”, which addresses dialogue ethics in Islam, endorses site-blocking in general, but says the current system needs to involve the consultation of experts, such as Islamic scholars, who should have access to blocked content, especially content regarding religious issues and Islam, in order to review and provide educated advice.

“The young generation is not fully aware or conscious of the smart tactics some Westerners use to convince people of their views about Islam,” said Al-Gain. “It’s the KACST’s or the CITC’s responsibility to make these links accessible to scholars and Islamic educators so that they study, analyze and respond to them. In fact, the KACST or the CITC must alert Muslim scholars to the existence of such links for further research and examination to attack the devious misconceptions that offend Islam.”

Chances are if you try to access Wikipedia today you’ll get through. Tomorrow, however, the site might be blocked again with no explanation or effective recourse. To cope with the world’s current advancements in technology, where access to information is easier than ever before, does this strategy help promote virtue in our society, or just confusion?

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