January 14, 2004

Meet Saudi Arabia's most famous computer expert

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Eyas S. Al-Hejery, PhD, may be the only computer geek
in Saudi Arabia to have had the eyes of the world focus on his work.
That's because he's head of the country's Internet Service Unit, which
runs the country's infamous Web-censoring system that is supposed to
defend Saudi citizens from "those pages of an offensive or harmful
nature to the society, and which violate the tenants [sic] of the
Islamic religion or societal norms."No normal citizen of a secular
"western" nation would tolerate this level of interference with his or
her Internet use, but this is a conservative Islamic state where
protection from Internet evils like pornography doesn't draw much
protest. Saudi Arabia seems to
have lightened up a bit on political and religious censorship in the last year, a relaxation for which
Al-Hejery cannot claim credit. He says security agencies, not his
Internet Service Unit, decide which sites to block for any reason besides obvious pornography.

Now it's time for a little disclaimer: The Saudi Internet filters are easy to
defeat. I found at least a dozen anonymous surfing sites that let me
view all the porn anyone could want in less than 30 minutes, and I have
viewed more online porn while testing the Saudi content filters than I had
looked at in my entire life before this experiment. Al-Hejery, too,
knows that anyone with much knowledge of the Internet and computers can
blow right by the Saudi content filters. He sees the filtering as a way
to protect children and other innocents from Internet evils, and not
much more than that.

Many complaints from westerners about Saudi Internet censorship are not
about pornography, but about blocked sites that deal with topics like
women's rights, civil liberties, gay sexuality, and religions other than
Islam. I tried to reach a number of the blocked sites mentioned in the
Harvard Law research study, Documentation
of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia
, last updated Sept. 12, 2002,
and found that some of the more innocuous sites blocked at that time --
like iVillage.com -- are now
available, but that many others on the list are still blocked. I found that non-Muslim religious
sites seem to be more available in Saudi Arabia now than they apparently were in the past. Testimonies of Muslims
who become Christians
is the sort of title that almost certainly
would have brought up the "Access to the requested URL is not allowed!"
page (see screenshot) instead of the site itself a year or two ago. I
also found that some human rights-oriented sites, including Reporters Without
Borders
and Amnesty
International
, that were once blocked are now available -- and not just their main pages, but pages that deal specifically with Saudi government abuses.

Click to enlarge

On the other hand, just about any site that portrays Judaism or Israel
in a positive light isn't allowed -- although this
page
debunking the (sadly) widely held Muslim extremist myth that
Jews drink Muslim blood, and other anti-Semitic libels, seems to have
slipped through the cracks, and can be viewed by Saudi residents without
going through anonymous proxies or using other filter-defeating tactics.

(Saudis with money to pay massive phone bills don't need to take any
special measures to get around the filters. They can simply obtain an ISP
account in one of the less restrictive neighboring countries and do
their Web surfing via long distance calls.)

Al-Hejery shrugs off the people who bypass the filters. He points out
that the system has wide public support, demonstrated by the fact that
the Internet Service Unit currently receives over 200 "legitimate"
requests to block sites every day, but only a "trickle" of
requests to unblock sites that citizens feel are being hidden
improperly.

Asked what he considers an "illegitimate" blocking request, he says,
"Well, like to block CNN."

I point out that there are times when U.S. President George W. Bush
would probably like to have CNN blocked, too, and Al-Hejery laughs.

Content filters are just part of the job

While the content filters get all the press attention, Al-Hejery's
operation is far more than that. He points out, "This is the
Internet gateway for Saudi Arabia." All ISPs must, by law, route through
it. The Internet Service Unit is also the registrar for the .sa top
level domain, and is generally the go-to agency for any Internet-related
matter here, just as its name implies.

Al-Hejery went to work for the Internet Service Unit soon after he got his PhD, and rose through
the ranks to his present position. He is a techie, not a religious or
political radical. His job is not to decide which sites Saudis are
allowed to see or not see, but to keep a horde of servers and routers
humming along. And if he fails, what with the fact that sending all
Internet traffic in the whole country through a single chokepoint
obviously creates a single point of failure, all Net traffic in Saudi
Arabia stops. There is at least a little redunancy built into the
system, with gateways in both Riyadh and Jedda, but this is nowhere near
the level of fail-safe connectivity major U.S. online companies expect
from their bandwidth providers.

This kind of worry can make a man a little nervous, especially since
his systems are as swamped by spam and DDoS attacks as any other
backbone provider's. And once you get Al-Hejery going on the twin topics
of spam and DDoS, you are suddenly no longer talking to someone who runs
one of the world's two most notorious Internet censorship systems (the
other one being China's) but to a guy who is angry about ignorant computer
owners hooking unprotected computers to "always on" cable modems or DSL lines where
they can be used as open spam relays or DDoS zombies by anyone with even
a little bit of cracking skill.

Sadly, the Saudi Net filter doesn't stop spam. "If you could stop spam,"
I told Al-Hejery, "You could make a million dollars a day as a
consultant for the U.S. government, and I'd even kick in some extra out
of my own pocket."

"If I could do that," he replied, "I would be a hero here, too."

Author's note: Plenty has been written
elsewhere
about the political side of Saudi Arabia's Internet
censorship policy. This article is not an attempt to justify it, since
I find the idea as appalling as anyone else raised in the U.S. who
believes wholeheartedly in our Constitution's First
Amendment
. But just once, I thought, we should step back and take a
look at the man who is charged with making this unwieldy system work --
and to point out that he's as aware as anyone else of the system's flaws.

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