Freedom of expression is classed as a basic human right both in UN statute and International law. Of course this doesn’t mean that all countries and governments respect this right – clearly when you look at countries like Iran, China and Syria that certainly isn’t the case.
Post something critical online about the Thai royal family and if you live in Thailand, expect a knock on the door very soon. Egypt, Turkey, Gaddafi’s Libya and lots of other Middle Eastern countries also have take a very keen interest in controlling what is posted and discussed on the internet.
The control is usually implemented by fear supplemented by draconian filtering and censoring technologies. Facebook and YouTube are routinely blocked in lots of countries across the world simply because they are very lightly moderated and actively encourage free discussion.
Forums are also a great way for people to gather and discuss various topics and I want to tell you the story of an Arabic discussion forum called Tomaar.net. The site was initially created as a place for Saudis to discuss philosophical aspects of Islam – here’s a screenshot of it.
The forum became very popular primarily because it was a place where subjects like women’s rights, equality and homosexuality could be discussed by Saudi’s in the context of their religion. It soon started to attract visitors from across the world and became a hugely successful forum for Arabic speakers. Needless to say that site was not very popular with the religious fundamentalists who hated this sort of free discussion – and this included the Saudi Government.
The forum was hosted in the USA, so it couldn’t be closed down by the Saudi Government who did however block all access from any ISP situated in their country. Fortunately the forum users were sophisticated web users and were able to use circumvention tools like Identity Cloaker and TOR to bypass the blocks and filters. Also many users lived outside Saudi Arabia and were not subject to the ban and so the forum continued to grow in popularity.
What Happened Next to Tomaar.net?
Well the forum had a pretty tough time over the coming months after the Saudi blocks were put up. First of all their hosting providers suddenly pulled the plug, no warning just a letter terminating their contract. Then followed a succession of hosting providers but all were unable to keep the forum up for very long.
Tomaar.net was being targeted and overloaded by frequent DDOS attacks. DDOS stands for Distributed Denial of Service and is basically when a web server is overloaded by loads of computers (also called a botnet) all making repeated requests at the same time. The server hosting the forum was being overloaded and falling over.
You can defend against these attacks and in fact they tried valiantly to keep the forum up commissioning specialist companies like Prolexic Technologies to protect the site. However in the end it just became too costly to protect the site against these regular attacks, the Tomaar site died and a lively discussion forum exists only in the cache of sites like the Waybackmachine.
Was the Saudi Government responsible for all this, there’s no direct proof that I know of. However there are many who strongly believe they were behind the attacks. The reality is that is would be extremely easy for a Government to shut down a site like this, you can even buy large DDOS attacks online for a few hundred dollars.
This is perhaps the most worrying aspect that even a site hosted in a country famous for protecting freedom of speech is not safe. It’s so very simple to close down a website if you have some resources available – no problem at all if you’re an oil rich fundamentalist government.