Why Internet censorship is bad for Arab progress

Content blocking is stifling creativity and economic development in the Gulf says Alexander McNabb

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By  Alexander McNabb Published  February 21, 2008

Last year I spoke at a regional telecommunications conference when I asked the audience of telecom operators, media people and technologists how many had heard of Web 2.0. I got less than 10 hands up in a room of some 300 and more, and got even less when I asked how many people had heard of Facebook.

Before I got up on stage, I had to sit through a presentation from a telecommunications network manufacturer that was telling us how cool it was that their vision embraced messaging software like Yahoo! Messenger and MSN and how very funky for the kids this content was.

The kids had moved on, of course, and were doing something completely different with their eyeballs. It can be hard, keeping up with kids.

It did depress me. The fact is that the way the world is communicating is undeniably changing, but the vast majority of people working in the regional telecoms industry appear oblivious to the nature of that change. That and the application of a vast reserve of absolute stupidity can be the only explanation for the fact that a wide number of what can be characterised as increasingly important Internet resources are blocked in the UAE.

Why are they important? Well, today's world is one where people are increasingly adopting new social and sharing networks. Facebook and MySpace are the examples that everyone loves to use, but there are a huge number of others, including professional networks like LinkedIn and Xing. As these are opening up new potential ways of using information to people, the companies behind them are morphing and integrating the information streams they present to consumers. So, for instance, Wikipedia and Google Earth link to photo sharing resource Panoramio. Increasingly, people are being presented with powerful new ways to select, combine and inter-link information streams, then have them formatted to suit a preference. And those information flows are becoming powerful and even central to an increasing number of people.

Except where an operator or regulator with no vision allows them to be blocked, apparently because they are ‘dating' sites. The net result of this dim policy does not stop ‘dating' but does stop the adoption of these social information-centric networks and sites. Dating, oddly, used to happen before the Internet, by the way. It's perhaps worth noting that we are all here simply because our forefathers did actually manage to get it together without the assistance of the Internet.

This policy actually limits the adoption of advanced forms of knowledge-based technology: in other words, these people are holding young people back and retarding their exposure to, and use of, increasingly important technology platforms compared to other parts of the world. And even, arguably, helping to make their young people less competitive. Because, few would disagree, you have to keep up with changes in technology more today than ever before if you are to stay alongside the rapid pace of innovation.

It is perhaps worth noting that Internet sites in Jordan and Egypt are not blocked and that Jordanian and Egyptian youth culture have not been plunged into depravity. Rather the opposite: there is a strong and vibrant technology and software industry creating significant economic opportunity and societal benefit in both countries.

Orkut has 60 million users. Black Planet 16 million users. Habbo 80 million. They're all blocked. So's Flickr, Twitter, Dodgeball and CyWorld. Many of these are purely frivolous. More than one are part of Google's increasingly integrated information offerings. None are intentionally morally corrupt sites, they just reflect the input of millions of people around the world who are all interacting, learning and adopting new forms of communication together. And they are part of increasingly integrated and fast-evolving systems of communication that regional telcos, judging from my experience last year, simply aren't keeping pace with, don't understand and are blocking out of sheer ignorance and lack of vision.

The content blocks in place against social networking sites need to be removed. The news that the TRA is considering a formalisation of censorship policy is good news indeed if it results in these sites being opened up and the resultant fostering of technology use and access - a process that has been retarded in the UAE and other states by the blocking policy.
Alexander McNabb is group account director at Spot On Public Relations and blogs here.

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