Saudi Law for Web Media

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia finally passed its new electronic publishing regulations that introduce new controls on all forms of Web media. So from now on, all websites, blogs, discussion forms, advertising services, newsgroups and other Web services are regulated by the same principles that govern traditional publications such as newspapers and magazines.
In addition to this, no one in the country can possess a domain name for a news, advertising, video or audio content website or any broadcasting service on the Internet without acquiring a license from the authorities in Saudi Arabia. The license may be given only to Saudi nationals who are 20 years of age or older.

While blogging per se does not require a license as it has been explicitly mentioned as belonging to another category, bloggers and owners of forums can voluntarily register with the authorities in Saudi Arabia if they want to – even though the law does not really provide any incentive for them to do so.

The implications of having all forms of electronic publications governed by the same law that regulates traditional publications are huge, as this means that all these websites are required to have the promotion of ‘Islam and good morals’ as one of their aims. The new regulations also make it clear that news websites are required to have an editor-in-chief who has to be approved by Saudi authorities, and who will be liable for all the content on the website.

It is unfortunate to see that Saudi Arabia seems to consider the Internet as a major threat and not as a platform for learning and promoting innovation. Any law that attempts to regulate the Web should not aim to restrict its use to the greatest extent possible, but instead, provide individuals and companies with clear rules that specify the limit of their liability in the most concise manner so that they know exactly what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

It is quite ridiculous to make a webmaster personally and fully liable for every single thing published on a website – especially when the content is written by others using the website – without providing him defences that can protect him. There can be a case in which he may not know about the violating material, or he may not get a fair chance to remove the material in a timely manner. Unfortunately, the Omani law isn’t much better than Saudi’s in this aspect, as our Telecom Law makes webmasters fully liable for the content of their websites without giving them any proper defences.

Another fundamental problem with Saudi Arabian law is that it makes some classification of Web content which doesn’t exist on the real Internet, because of the massive convergence of all forms of media on the Internet. A blog may be focused on delivering news, and may use audio and video content as the primary method for delivering that content. Would this make it part of the first category of websites that require a license, or would it still remain a blog that doesn’t require a license?

The law also does not seem to acknowledge the existence of social networks and micro-blogging platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, both of which are increasingly becoming more significant than older forms of Web publications, yet do not clearly fall under any of the items listed in the new regulations.

Oman’s own publication law is badly in need of an update, but thankfully the general consensus is that it doesn’t apply to blogging and other new forms of Web publishing in their current state. It is very unlikely that we will take the path Saudi Arabia is taking, but our legislators have to be careful when drafting any new law to regulate the Web.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.