I cannot really claim that I was surprised when I heard that the Ministry of Culture and Information of Saudi had declared its intentions to pass an amendment to its law regulating publications so that it extends its scope to cover web publication in a way that will require all website owners, bloggers, and forum administrators to register their websites with the Ministry of Culture and Information. I was shocked, but I was not surprised to hear that come from Saudi. Fortunately for our Saudi neighbours after the web went mad over this announcement, the Saudi government reached to international news agencies denying that the new amendment will cover blogs and forums and that it will only extend to news related websites.
In the original announcement of the new amendment the Ministry of Culture and Information claimed that the new regulation is intended to help protect the Saudi public and does not intend to restrict the freedom of expression. The statements made by the official spokesperson on TV explicitly mention blogs and forums, so we do not know if it is safe to believe that the regulations will only cover news related websites.
It is very difficult to imagine how this upcoming regulation would be able to distinguish between news related “websites” and blogs. There is no technical definition of what a blog is – it is obviously a website, and it can be dedicated to publishing blog posts about news, so what that make it a news related website? Or would blogs written in a personal capacity with no commercial interest be excluded on that basis? We do not know, what we know for sure is that freedom of expression cannot be seriously enforced or even promoted when you require anonymous individuals to disclose their personality and register their names and addresses with the government. It is clear that the motive of the law is to make it easy to catch anyone who writes something improper on the internet.
I think it is reasonable to regulate websites when they relate to a specific industry in a specific region, for example, the sale of pharmaceuticals should be regulated whether offline or online. The law should be amended (if needed) to address the change of technology in the way those activities are conducted. However, there are certain aspects of our lives which have been totally revolutionized by the internet and the principles by which they had been governed just do not work anymore in this new web based reality. You still should be able to hold people accountable, but governments will not be able to stop people from publishing what they think and sharing that thought with other people. This ease at which communication is spread over the internet is a fundamental aspect of it and that cannot be stopped without rendering the internet totally unusable.
Creating a culture of accountability does not necessarily mean censorship and restricted access, this culture can be reached if we put clear rules in place that specify the rights and responsibilities of each one of us and have these rights examined and enforced in courts of law that are impartial and just.
This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.