Skype, Orkut, Twitter, Flickr and the Pirate Bay. This is not simply a list of some of the most popular dot-com sites on the internet; it is also a list of blocked websites within the United Arab Emirates. When a web surfer here visits such a site an apology comes on to the screen explaining that the site has been "blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the UAE".
If a website is offensive, why apologise for blocking it? In 2003 the former Minister of Information and Culture called for the scrapping of internet blocking saying that "no one should impose this censorship on the citizen", adding that it "reduces the quality and speed of the internet connection".
The irony is that five years on, internet censorship still exists, but the Ministry of Information and Culture doesn't. Another irony is that web censorship in the UAE is actually developed in California by a San Jose-based firm called Secure Computing, the producer of SmartFilter. The software is responsible – for better or worse – for the fettered access that internet users enjoy, or don't, in the UAE.
According to its website, the company "provides a proven database of over 20 million blockable websites in over 91 categories". Twenty million sites categorised into fields as diverse as school cheating information, pornography, anonymisers, general news, violence, dating and drugs. The clients list also varies, from internet service providers, state agencies and universities to private firms, allowing the client to pick which categories to block.
Incidentally, Secure Computing, which promises "very aggressive growth plans" for the Arab world, provides its services in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and China, all classified by the international press freedom watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontières, as "internet enemies". In China it won contracts with four of the top five state-owned telecom companies and doubled its profits recently, just as condemnation of China's internet censorship increased.
In the UAE, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the agency that contracted with Secure Computing, is responsible for licensing, investigating hacking and network breeches, promoting e-commerce and fighting cybercrime in addition to a host of other Herculean tasks.
Because the internet is an extraordinarily dynamic world, sometimes categorising websites simply as "dating" or "gambling" is not all that easy. Is Facebook, for example, simply a social networking site even though it hosts Texas Hold'em poker tournaments with poker chips being bought and sold for real money?
There is an element of schizophrenia and inconsistent morality within the censorship methodology in the UAE in general. Orkut, the social networking site that the TRA has blocked, was unblocked after thousands of internet users here emailed them, only to be re-blocked once again.
There are equally explicit pictures on Facebook as there are on Orkut and yet it is tolerated. Although IsoHunt, Torrentbay and Torrentscan are blocked, BitSoup and MiniNova are allowed. Surprisingly, the latter hosts 200,000 downloadable torrents including Hollywood and pornographic movies (though it is now trying to become more "family orientated") as well as television shows. Why the bias?
There are numerous other examples about the state of ambivalence that the UAE censors have displayed. Syriana, for instance, was allowed to be filmed in Dubai after the script was approved, but was censored upon release after four months of internal consultations with the National Media Council.
Persepolis, an animated adaptation of a comic book about a young Iranian girl's coming of age that was condemned by the Iranian government not only received its regional premiere at the Middle East Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, it was shown in regular cinemas throughout the country. This is despite the fact that the book is banned in the UAE, after initially being sold, and the DVD banned since its cinema run.
Books have also won their share of censorship, with Gibran Khalil Gibran's The Prophet repeatedly going through a cycle of being allowed to be sold, then banned, over and over again. The Harry Potter series cannot be taught in schools but is allowed to be sold in bookstores and screened in cinemas.
The Hebrew language websites of Israeli newspapers are blocked in the UAE (along with every other website that falls under .il, the domain name of the Jewish state); once again, surprisingly, the English language websites of these papers are completely accessible to surfers in the UAE. How can a visit to the website of the Jerusalem Museum of Islamic Art, which is blocked, be more harmful to our "religious, cultural, political and moral values" than Israeli ring-wing propaganda?
Nothing should be more important than safeguarding the moral values of the Emirates, but the censorship issue must be resolved soon; it is as impossible to be half-moral as it is to be half-pregnant.
* Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai and Chairman of the Young Arab Leaders in the UAE.
This article first apeared in TheNational.ae on June 29th 2008