The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Friday, May 28, 2004

More on Saudi Censorship 

You may recall that a few weeks ago, I talked about Saudi censorship of the printed media. Well it doesn't stop there; our censors have the entire Web to worry about! When the internet first emerged, our authorities just ignored it. Then they started to realize that they couldn't ignore it while attempting to join civilized countries in bodies like the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, leading edge citizens were connecting to it, at great expense, thru phone links to other Gulf countries. So in 1999 they finally allowed access. However, the "catch" was that all Saudi ISP's have to connect thru a bank of servers in the King AbdulAziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, a "Technology Park" situated between the Sheraton Hotel and Ikea.

One advantage of this arrangement to the government is that it can track and listen into all the the conversations in and out of the Kingdom. A second benefit is that it can prevent its citizens from seeing forbidden sites. And usually a site is forbidden because:
- it is pornographic
- it carries a political message unacceptable to the government
- it carries a religious message unacceptable to the clerical elite. However this applies mostly to non-Wahabbi-Sunni variants of Islam, rather than the other major world religions.
- someone in KACST decides he doesn't like a site for some totally arbitrary reason.
- a site is added because of "finger trouble".

Whenever we try and access such a site thru a Saudi ISP, this is what we see:-

Attractive, isn't it? Islam is renowned for the richness of its ornamental art and its exquisite calligraphy. Therefore, KACST has scoured the country for the most talented web designers in order to come up with this page. And they have also taken some perfectly good Arabic "Access to this page...." and turned it into the ugly English techno-babble "Access to the requested URL...". Are those of us without a Computer Science degree supposed to know what that means? However I digress...

As a citizen, we can report any site that ought to be blocked - have fun, put in www.microsoft.com. You will also note that this page allows us to report a site when it is blocked for no good reason; we are invited to fill out a form and report it. This form is then transmitted to KACST's Customer Care Department, so named because it acts as an outlet for customers who care. However do not assume that the staff of this department care likewise; in fact they do not give the proverbial "tinker's cuss". Chosen for their complete lack of motivation and work ethic, and in between chatting with friends on mobile phones, smoking, drinking coffee, eating donuts, scratching their private parts and snoozing, they convey the message to some huge electronic trashcan, secure in the knowledge that the customer has achieved some cathartic release, but is not naive enough to expect a reply, let alone any action.

It will come as no surprise that the Religious Policeman blog is blocked. However, I don't take it personally, because every Blogspot blog, and there must be thousands of them, are similarly blocked. So whether it's this one, or some others, or a combination, we'll never know. Unless you want to send a message to KACST Customer Care and ask....

I do notice, however, that many of my fellow-countrymen are reading this blog. There are ways of bypassing the blocking mechanism that are fairly obvious to any observant internet user. I won't speculate any further, to avoid giving KACST any clues, and ask that you likewise refrain in any responses.

KACST, being civil servants, are obviously clueless when it comes to making the most of this page. They could, for example, make it artistic, as I have done below, using Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" to depict the fate in Hell that would otherwise follow a visit to the site in question, had it not been blocked for the sake of their immortal soul.

It has also escaped their notice that this must be, by a long way, the single most frequently accessed page in Saudi Arabia. As internet Real Estate, it's as valuable as it gets. If I had the rights to sell advertising on it, I could retire next month as a very rich man. So why it doesn't have Pepsi or Kudu (a chain of hamburger joints) as a background, I have no idea.

As you can see, I'm not very good with Photoshop. However if the talented artists out there would like to submit alternative designs, I'd be glad to publish them. I'll even make sure they're mailed to KACST (but not to Customer Care)!

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