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Saudi site blocking

At the Berkman Center this afternoon, the lunch-time topic was countries that block access to particular sites. We heard about the Berkman’s study of Saudi Arabia’s practices.

Jonathan Zittrain helped start the project when he realized that many people assume that if you could overcome the economic obstacles to global access, everyone would magically be on line. But even when the connection is there, countries are imposing limitations on what can be accessed. The project checks what’s being filtered by the local ISPs. The study began in 2000 and is being done in conjunction with U of Toronto and U of Cambridge. Jeff Engerman, a student Fellow at the Center, gave the presentation.

Before allowing access, the Saudi government did a three year study of public access beginning in 1994, and then spent two years building a firewall. Public access began in 1999. All traffic runs through central government servers and outbound urls are chaecked against a government-specified blacklist. (See here for the policy statement about filtering.) Users can request a block; apparently, about 200 requests are made per day, 30% of which are accepted. About 3% of requests to unblock are implemented.

The requests to block pages outnumber the number of blocked pages, which Saudi officials take as a sign of public support. One newspaper reported 45% of Saudis think there’s too much blocking, 41% think it’s reasonable, and 14% want more. People sell hacked access to blocked sites for around $50 — it’s done through open proxies. (The Chinese, on the other hand, don’t just use a blacklist but look for strings, etc., to dynamically determine the acceptability of content.)

The project found the 98% of the porn sites they checked were blocked, 93% of gambling, 65% of drugs (marijuana 74%, but not treatment sites (5%)), and 41% of the proxies used to skirt around the filters.

For religious sites, 0.7% were blocked, 12% of Bahai were blocked, 5% of Islam, 1% of Scientology, and 0% of Judaism, Christianity and Catholicism.

5% of pages about Israel/Palestine were blocked, 8% on terrorism, the MEMRI list of Islamist websites 29%, gay/lesbian/bisexual 11%, Holocaust 11%, Israel 0%.

There are also blocks on conversion of Muslims to Christianity (e.g.,, and, women’s rights, other Islamic sects.

The “vice” sites are blocked through SmartFilter, a commercially-available filter. There are plenty of anomalies and many cases that are hard to understand: the human rights site is blocked by SmartFilter as nudity, possibly because it has photos of a naked woman showing wounds. SmartFilter’s participation makes it difficult to judge which sites are being targeted. For example, SmartFilter puts Holocaust sites in its “violence” category. Take out the Holocaust sites blocked by SF and the number specifically picked out by the government drops dramatically.

There is some political filtering, including and

Saudi Arabia’s inconsistent blocking seems to indicate that it’s doing it in part to satisfy internal critics, although they are quite aggressive blocking porn. China, on the other hand, is all bite and no bark.

Fascinating session.

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16 Responses to “Saudi site blocking”

  1. KQED’s “Pacific Time” recently had a segment on the 1,421 words banned from the Chinese Internet.

  2. FYI – you’ve left off the “http://” in the links to

  3. FYI, I have some reports about “SmartFilter” itself on my censorware page.

    I’ve also done a great amount of reverse-engineering of its internals, but can’t publish this work because I have no protection from being sued (and yes, sigh, I’ve talked to the Usual Suspects, please don’t suggest them :-( ).

  4. Fascinating piece, David!

    Why would anyone rely on MEMRI to “bridge the language gap,” i.e. be the filter for that mysterious language, Arabic, when apparently there are no Arab contributors or translators? MEMRI’s Inquiry and Analysis Series appears to be written primarily by commentators with Hebrew/Jewish names? And why do they only have four cartoon categories — none of them featuring laughs about Arabs? If [still] in doubt, check out where the glowing reviews come from…

  5. sir i want to unblock porn site in saudi arabia is there any software if yes plz tell i will be thankful and appreciate you

    Thanking You

  6. Plz unblock this site because i am searching a bride to marry so i will be thankful if you can able to do it asap

    Thanking You
    Hamed Ali

  7. I’m able to get around the firewall using a VPN service It lets me use Skype and other programs no problem. Does anyone use anything else? So far they have been great but want to keep my options open.

  8. Dear sir, how can I unblock forbidden sites in Saudi Arabia??? is there any software??? if yes please tell.

    Thanks in advance, your reply is high appreciated.

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  11. plz unblock this site or give me any site or any trick tu open thi this site

  12. plz sir, inform me how unblock porn sites in saudi arabia. any proxys, tricks, sites…the easiest way preferably. i would be very appriciative.

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