Hello World! A Tale of Two Countries

A Tale of Two Countries –

Freedom On the Internet and in Society

Colour Index

Obstacles to the free flow of information online

Grey – Unknown

Blue – No censorship

Yellow – Some censorship

Red – Under surveillance

Black – Heavy surveillance (“Internet black holes”)

Internet-surveillance trends around the world are both interesting and surprising.

According to the Reporters without Borders (RSF) – a Paris-based organisation, Saudi Arabia is definitely a high internet-surveillance zone. This is one of the few issues on which Saudi Arabia stands together with Iran and Tunisia! The 13 countries that control and block the Internet, including North Korea which entirely controls ownership of the internet-connected computers to a selected few, are – Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The RSF call these countries Internet’s Black-Holes.

The Reporters without Borders not only identify the countries that block Internet, they have devised a rating of the degree of censorship And the trends are surprising:

  • Where do you think the Internet access has no censorship?
    No, it’s not in the North America and the Europe, but in large parts of Africa, parts of South America, Mexico and the Caribbean and in Mongolia!

  • Is Australia a free Internet-access zone?
    No, it’s under heavy surveillance – the same degree as in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and parts of South-East Asia!

  • What about the rest of the world, including the democracies of North America, Europe and India? They are under some censorship, but largely people have a free Internet-access.

Why do I specifically compare Saudi Arabia with Tunisia? Because these two countries are complete contrasts in many ways, despite both being Muslim-majority countries (almost 100% in Saudi Arabia and 98% in Tunisia).

Saudi Arabia is a bizarre experiment in 7th century Islamic social reconstruction, because of which they keep on falling into all sorts of complications, despite the somewhat liberal attitude of the present King, who makes small gestures of “liberalism” while keeping the reins tight on most important issues. The Crown Prince however, is a conservative Islamist and considering the advanced age of the present King, the news about the future for the world is not a happy one. Saudi Arabia, where there is no personal freedom of any kind granted to the people, is likely to slide back into a prison -like State if and when the Crown-Prince comes to power.

This is bad news for the world as well because Saudi Arabia indirectly controls the way its powerful ally the US decides its democratic ventures in the world – because of its oil-power and the strategic location Saudi Arabia has in West Asia.

Even the wealth of Saudi Arabia is mostly concentrated in the hands of the Saudi royal family members who number in thousands, leaving the rest of the Saudi population in abject poverty – like any Third World country. The tales of fabulous Saudi wealth are only fables (see link here).

On the other hand, Tunisia – a former French colony, gained independence in 1956 and became a Republic in 1957. Tunisia’s development profile is impressive by any standards.

Since 1987, Tunisia has recorded an average growth rate of 5%. It has managed to reduce its total debt burden. It is being frequently cited by International financial institutions as a success story in terms of economic structural adjustments – its economic growth rate has risen in last 20 years from -2.7% to 4.6%! Its debt has decreased from 26.3% to 15.4%. Its private investment has risen from 47.8% to 57%.

Tunisia’s profile of treating its women (see link) is also equally impressive – the lowest marriage age of women is 17 – consent being an essential pre-requisite of marriage. The Constitution enjoins upon both husband and wife to treat each other with respect and assist each other in household responsibilities and in the affairs of their children. Provisions are made to grant child support and alimony to a divorced woman – in India, the divorced Muslim women are still fighting for alimony, despite its provision in the Indian Civil Code. Girl students’ ratio in secondary schools in Tunisia is 53% and in higher education institutions 59%. Women form 22.7% of the total representation in the legislative and advisory bodies. Nearly 40% of the university professors are women. They are also heads of national associations.

In contrast to this, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its women is amongst the worst in the world. Although recently some Islamic clerics and other authorities there have made some statements that women may work as lawyers and in sectors other than health and education, by and large, women’s participation in public space is negligible. They can’t move out of the house without a male guardian, can’t take any decision themselves and there is a religious police in major urban areas including Riyadh, who have the authority to arrest women talking to men in public, moving about without a male guardian’s permission and the punishment for such “crimes” can range from imprisonment to whipping – sometimes in public. The lowest marriage age has only recently been set at 16, but there is a clause in this rule that in special cases the age can be 6-8. One doesn’t know what special cases can require a child of 6-8 to be married.

The sharp contrast between these two countries does not make them see eye to eye with each other. They are not on the best of terms. However, freedom of expression is one arena where they seem to stand together, though not by design. In both countries, even informal spaces such as blogging are heavily surveilled and those who express any critique of the government are imprisoned. In Saudi Arabia they can even be whipped. Reporters Without Borders classify both countries as Internet’s Black-Holes i.e., countries which curtail the free-flow of the Internet. There are millions of sites which are not accessible in these countries.

In both countries, the State has encroached upon the freedom of expression of the people. This is despite the fact that the Constitution of Tunisia guarantees this freedom to is people, but it is not available to them. Saudi Arabia does not guarantee this freedom. Only recently there has been a proclamation there that reporters can make “constructive criticisms” of the government. It is easy to see that this proclamation doesn’t mean much, as any reporter can be arrested on grounds that his critique is not constructive.

If only Tunisia would grant this essential human right to its people in practice, I feel it can become a model Muslim-majority country.

Today i.e., on the 12th of March, Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders is celebrating the Cyber-Freedom Day. On this day, we all should speak for the freedom of expression – a basic human right that many regions in the world do not have.

30 Responses to “Hello World! A Tale of Two Countries”
  1. manchitra says:

    Good I am in a country where we have freedom of expression.

    I wonder how a girl can get married at the age of 6 . Will they understand the meaning of marriage.

    Tunisia is better than S. Arabia, I gather from what you have written. Thanks for the information.

  2. Sundaram says:

    A great post !

    We definitely need more yellow colors on world map in this case.

    A really nice article by Naomi Klein on civil surveillance in China – Police State 2.0


    The unfortunate truth is that media and internet corporates for their interest often choose to bow before these undemocratic regimes. Accepting government-mandated filters in China by Google is such a case.

    As for the yellow patches, i definitely feel good to see at least there is some, formal freedom of expression. But most of the time it is also because these states, owing to their cushioning middle class and success in manufacturing consent, allow this freedom only because they are able to absorb protests, dissent and continue with same lopsided policies. Despite largest protests in history, Bush continued bombing Iraq and govt in India continues with same policies that are forcing farmers to suicide.

    Allowing a limited freedom is actually making these states more comfortable. And yes, as soon as you go beyond speaking out your dissent and start acting, there is no freedom. There is patriot act, pota, police batons and all kinds of brutal repressions.

  3. Sundaram says:

    And besides web, what if our computer, all its drives and files, are already open to surveillance by Pentagon anyways? Microsoft has given key to all our computers to state policing.


    So much for freedom of expression in capitalism !

  4. Hisham says:

    You look at the map and you realize how very few countries allow complete freedom on the net! I think it’s only the tip of the iceberg since some/many of those countries try to violate the neutrality of the Internet, allowing Internet Service Providers (some of which are state run) to access its content.
    Great post Archana!

  5. Archana says:

    Thanks for all those links. I’ll take time to go through them, but I will and get back on them.

    You have raised a significant point about whether the popular voices of dissent really curb autocracy – as shown by the open defiance by Bush of the global opinion against Iraq bombing. This opens up a new thought process – if popular opinions do not curb autocracy, why are autocracies afraid of these voices of dissent? Why do they try to curb them? Perhaps because they know they are being autocratic and they don’t want the voices of dissent to grow so strong that their power can be challenged.

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, despite our lack of a developed infrastructure and our lack of economic resources, and our myriads of other problems, we still should be thankful we are born in India and not in a country like Saudi Arabia or China. When you read about the realities of those countries, you realise how thankful we all should be and how valuable it is for us to preserve this freedom.

  6. Archana says:

    All those interested in knowing about the recent small-scale reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia under the guidance of the present Saudi King, may visit the blog titled “Crossroads Arabia” – just type this title in the Google to get to the blog-link. I acknowledge John Burgess, the blog-owner of Crossroads Arabia, for familiarising me with the small reforms being done in that country.

    However, please be aware that the situation in Saudi Arabia remains dictatorial and the people have no freedom or personal dignity there – these reforms are only small steps taken by the King. Besides, I’m not sure they will remain if and when the present Crown-Prince becomes the King.

  7. Archana says:

    Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog.

    You are right that there can be second-level blocks imposed even in the “yellow-zone” in the map above.

    You have made a very important comment on your own blog-post that more than half of the threatened bloggers live in the Arab World – http://almiraatblog.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/world-day-against-cyber-censorship/

    I guess that’s because of the kind of autocratic regimes the Arab World has imposed upon itself.

    I do appreciate your frankness and honesty in critiquing your part of the world. At the same time, it reflects that Morocco – your country is still free enough to allow you to voice your opinion! 🙂

  8. oby says:

    I found this post fascinating! I am surprised that the West has some restrictions on their access and I would love to know what that is. I can understand some restrictions on things such as child pornography or other such offensive things but i am curious what else it might be. And I am shocked at the level of surveillance that Australia has. Do you know why or what it is they are looking for?

  9. oby says:

    The only thing I might question is the fact that other than royalty the rest of Saudi lives in abject poverty. My feeling is that though there are a great many Saudi’s in poverty they also have a fairly large middle class.

  10. Archana says:

    OK, I modify my statement there – the Saudi royals control most of the Saudi wealth, leaving the rest of country – comprised of a middle class and a lower class – in meagre circumstances. Please do open that link there and see it. You’ll realise why I wrote that statement.

    The reasons in both India and the West for Internet monitoring are defence security – pornography is not much surveilled in these reagions. In most cases, the sites of high-sensitivity regarding defence-security are censored, while there is an intelligence presence on social networking sites – without disturbing the users’ activities or curtailing their movements on the Internet. This is to check the activities of terrorists and other violent activist groups.

    You know that in the cases of Jihad Jane, Paulin-Ramirez and the Nigerian aircraft bomber, the intelligence agencies released their facebook activities to the public news sites. This means that our activities on social networking sites are being monitored, without being disturbed. And I’m not really against it if it is to check the extremist activities in the world.

    PS – I won’t be surprised if Chiara’s Internet activities are also being monitored! 8)

    Australia’s democratic profile is not very good, considering the recent racist attacks on Indians there. As for the Internet-censorship, the government says it is to remove child pornography and “sensitive” material, but the rules don’t say how the “sensitive” material is to be defined. Please see the UNHCR link on this – http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,RSF,,AUS,45b632e02,4a38f982c,0.html

  11. SG says:

    Just landed on your blog. I am lucky.

    You inferred USA has censorship in internet. I am very much involved with that in my profession. I do not want to reveal a lot because of security reasons. I want to assure you that USA does not have internet censorship. It has only a “parental control” over internet usage and that too if the parent wants to exercise that control.

  12. Archana says:

    Welcome to the blog. I respect your sentiments. However, I find it difficult to believe that the Pentagon has floated all its data online for public access.

    The intelligence presence on the Internet is certainly there, as I said in the case of recently caught extremists their online activities were released to the public.

  13. oby says:

    If some censorship is allowed why hasn’t someone or a governement censored or blocked the virulent jihadi sites that flourish on the web and pull in the likes of Jihad Janes? Without constant access to it and the ability to communicate the hate perhaps the violence may lose a little ground…certainly i would think it would be a bit more difficult to get some traction on some of these plans going.

    On the other hand perhaps it is better to keep your enemies close to you.

  14. Archana says:

    Your question is very legitimate, but only an American expert can answer it.

    I feel it is because unless a person actually attempts to execute a crime, in a democracy you can’t censor the expressions; you can just monitor that person’s moves. Hence, they keep an eye on the activities of the likes of Jihad Jane on Facebook etc. Besides, letting them express their plans and ideas gives them clues about how they are operating.

    I guess it’s only the general public like you that can make a mass appeal to the government to make extremist hate-speeches illegal – whether in the US mosques or on Internet sites such as the Facebook. In the face of the demands by the majority the US government may be able to do something. But then this has a negative side – there are hate-speeches being expressed by the leaders of even other religions – only they are at the moment not indulging in violence. So any such law has to take this into account.

    The Reporters Without Borders certainly classify the US as a region with some censorship, with Internet sites largely being accessible to the people – as the map above shows.

  15. John Burgess says:

    I think this argument is mixing and matching several different definitions of censorship, as does the graphic itself.

    When people normally think of ‘censorship’, they’re thinking of a government’s controlling political speech/expression (which includes non-verbal expression). A government which stops people from saying things is censoring them.

    Certain kinds of expression, however, can also be criminal acts. The mere possession of or sending of child pornography, for instance, is criminal in it own right, not so much for the intellectual content (whatever that may be), but for the fact that children are being abused in the making of it. Thus, due to specific laws, this kind of expression can be censored in most countries.

    Similarly, expression which calls directly for violence against a named individual is a criminal act, not something seen as ‘protected speech’.

    Other laws in many countries prohibit solicitations to raise funds for terrorist organizations. Yes, it’s speech. Yes, it’s certainly expressing a political viewpoint. But also yes, it is prohibited speech.

    In the US, not only is it legal to call for a change in government policy–or change in government, for that matter–it is protected speech. As a result, someone supporting, e.g., a global Caliphate is protected in this call. That is a political viewpoint and censoring it is prohibited by the US Constitution. Even calling for ‘death to Infidels’–so long as it is not a particular infidel nor an immediate call to violent action–is protected as a political viewpoint.

    Censorship means stopping particular expression. It does not include monitoring expression. A country may or may not have laws that define whether or how monitoring may be done and for what reasons. That’s an issue of privacy, not expression.

    Complaints of ‘Censorship’ also gets thrown around wrongly when a private entity–like an employer–prohibits certain use of the Internet at the workplace. Again, that’s not censorship as censorship can only be done by a government or governmental agency.

    Frankly, I think the graphic by itself is junk. Those countries flagged as ‘free’ are more than likely to not be able to carry out censorship due to financial or technical reasons, not because they choose not to do so.

    The discussion in comments also seems to confuse freedom of expression/speech (the subject of censorship) with a government’s right to decide which information it will make available to the general public. All governments hold information which they deem better to hold closely than to broadcast publicly. War plans, the physical plans of nuclear power plants or weapon production, the way it conducts espionage, etc. Some countries, as the US and UK, have formal laws that permit the public to seek information which the government believes it should hold closely. That is, a way to challenge, through a Freedom of Information law, the propriety of the government’s decision to protect it. This has to do with freedom of information, but not with censorship.

  16. oby says:


    I see your point but it seems to be shaving the difference kind of thin. Why have the government decide to keep anything from the public if the public can come along and through the proper channels demand the viewing of such documents? Thre is no protection except for “in theory”.

    As for censorship, would it not behoove the USA and other governments to find a way to censor jihadi sites under the banner of “illegality” in the way they have done with child pornography? I udnerstand that a child is being abused in the one instance and is not of consenting age and so forth. But wouldn’t it be possible to say that those who visit these sites who are on the edge mentally and might take action can be harmed mentally by these websites? No they don’t call for a specific target to harm but have a rather broader “infidel” call to action…but isn’t that the point? that it doesn’t matter if a specific person or ANY infidel (both innocent) are harmed or killed via an affliliation to these websites then they are clearly a menace. The same with any other type of easily accessible potentially harmful “call to action” type of websites that a person without the means to attain knowledge might never act on. Now they are able to view it easily, are desensitized to feel that it is normal and that there are many others like them out there and that to take that next step is not only OK, but to their “peers” on these sort of sites would be the preferable course of action.

  17. John Burgess says:

    I didn’t explain FOIA adequately. Just because someone asks nicely–or even rudely–doesn’t mean the government has to cough up any requested documents. A FOIA request is a challenge to the government to make an affirmative decision that the information in question either is or is not properly classified. If it is properly classified–and sometimes, it takes a court to make the determination–then it will not be released. If it got classified by error or malfeasance, or because someone went into CYA mode improperly, then it will be released. It’s not automatic in the least.

    What is automatic is that when an FOIA request comes into an office, it has a very short period of time–seven days–to search through all files, paper and electronic, to see if it has any information subject to the request. The result of that search is passed on to whatever agency is responsible.

    I’ve had to deal with perhaps a dozen FOIA requests in my career. The requests were directed, usually, to State Dept., to see what, if any, files might mention a particular person or subject.

    Sometimes FOIA requests are made for personal reasons: Doe the FBI have a file on me? Sometimes they’re for litigation purposes: Did the gov’t actually authorize X to do Y? Did Z work for such and such an agency? Sometimes they’re for research or political issues: What did the Ambassador to Coolio have to say about a particular issue.

    As I said, just because it’s requested, doesn’t mean that the information can be released. There are strict rules about how information and documents can be classified (not always followed). Those rules also specify that nearly all classified materials will be released at the end of 25 years. The 25-yr limit was set by Clinton, who reduced it from the previous 35 years, btw.

    As far as redefining jihadi propaganda as illegal, it’s harder than you might think. To do it effectively would be to trample all over Constitutional guarantees of free speech. To do it simply to look like the gov’t is doing something just annoys people to no end.

    It is legal in the US to call for the overthrow of the government, so long as it’s not a violent revolution being called for. Utterly change the form of government? Permissible.

    The US Constitution actually is a ‘suicide pact’ if a majority of the people want to take it that way. The people have the right to amend the constitution, from top to bottom. Theoretically, the voters in the US could decide to change the form of government into a Muslim theocracy, a Buddhist community, or the spawn of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So long as they do it by ballots, not bullets.

    As an American, I am not only free to criticize the president vehemently and vilely, I can tell anyone who tells me to stop to simply bugger off. The only way I can be punished is if I make a direct threat against the person of the president.

    Jihadi (or other crazy) propaganda is legally protected as a matter of expressing a political viewpoint. If you outlaw that because it’s unpopular, how do you say that Scientology can’t be outlawed, or Catholicism, or Protestantism, or Atheism? Each of those religions (and non-religion) have parts of their beliefs that do not line up perfectly with a representative democratic form of government.

    Teach evolution in state schools? Annoys many Protestants. Require teaching hospitals to provide abortions because they get state funding at some point? Annoys the Catholics who run or work in teaching hospitals. Have ‘In God We Trust’ on coinage? Annoys the atheists–they just lost a court case last week on it.

    Even in a country that separates church and state, they overlap or rub against each other at times. When there is friction, there is politics. When there is politics, there is political speech. And when there is political speech, is it all but immune to censorship. At least in the US.

  18. John Burgess says:

    Oby: You might also find this piece on FOIA requests interesting:

    Obama agencies invoking secrecy provision more often than under Bush

  19. Archana says:

    Thanks for your enlightening analysis of the situation. While I agree with most of it, I have a few points to make –

    Ok, the map shows the resource-poor countries as free-Internet zone. Let’s look at it another way – free-Internet can occur only when countries are either resource-poor or when they don’t use Internet that much. In countries of high-Internet use, some level of censorship has to occur and much of it is necessary. I guess the rest of the map is correct. The Internet Black-Holes are still Internet Black-Holes.

    I agree with you that curbing Jihadist speech can require trampling over freedom of expression – that’s also the reason why orthodox fatwas of Deoband in India are not curbed. However, I feel excusing Jihadist Caliphate on this basis is not in consistency with the freedom of religious practice. Because a Jihadist Caliphate works on the principle that only a particular version of Islam is the correct form of religion and the whole world should follow only this form. This essentially encroaches upon the people’s right to practice whatever belief they want to follow and even their right to follow atheism. Hence, support to Jihadist Islam can’t be clubbed with freedom of expression. Precisely because of this, Deoband in India gives orthodox fatwas, but it doesn’t talk about all Indians converting to its orthodox version of Islam.

    I feel a distinction should be made between orthodox religious statements and extremist violence-oriented religious statements – without making a distinction between religions. No religion should be allowed to take a violent and extremist stand, be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism or any other religion for that matter.

    Freedom to criticise the head of State is something that exists in India as well. Media is always doing it. People are doing it in their public expression-spheres. In fact, Indians don’t have much of a luxurious life to live here, but this is perhaps the only luxury that is available to Indians.

    I find your link about Obama’s administration intriguing. If he himself directed the various departments to be more open about official information, why is it that the departments have become more secretive about it?

  20. John Burgess says:

    Yes, the black holes are black holes. Except that unlike astrophysical black holes, the Internet ones actually do leak! In China and the KSA, there are ways around the filters and the blockages. Some take money; others take ingenuity. But people will find a way around the problems if they really want to. The best governments can do is make it more difficult/expensive.

    There’s a problem when a state decides to say, “The orthodox variety of this religion is okay, but the extreme one isn’t.’ Who gives the government the right to decide which is the orthodox and which is the heterodox? Isn’t that government directly interfering with religion? It might work today, but what about tomorrow, when the government decides that my tolerant view of X is heterodox and my speech on it must be suppressed? That’s why government should play no role whatsoever in deciding which religion or aspect of religion is legitimate.

    I haven’t a clue what that link means when it comes to Obama. I do know that a lot of election-time promises have proven unworkable in real life. Many feel betrayed by that. I feel people should have known when they were being promised moonshine and unicorns.

  21. shailaja says:

    Dear Didi,
    Your posting was very informative. Over the ages, the powers that be have always been interested in snooping about others activities. Precious resources are being wasted for all this surveillance. The fight for freedom is a continuous one.

  22. Thomses says:

    Duh….. Kalian tuh ngasih komen kok panjang-panjang gitu seh ??????

  23. robes says:

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  24. chaussures says:


    just to say that i agree with original poster


  25. moi says:

    this is not the true map here it is : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Internet_blackholes.svg
    why did you changed asia color

  26. Max Outley says:

    Fascinating blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your theme. Many thanks

  27. Saindhavi says:

    Max Outley,
    Thanks. This theme is called “Structure” which comes free at WordPress.com. If you have a blog at WordPress.com, you can use it from their themes collection. This is a customizable theme so you can change it to suit your taste.

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  1. […] a profile of Tunisia and its comparison with Saudi Arabia, please see my blog-post, where I have discussed the issue, apart from its interesting social profile. The sharp contrast […]

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