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Toward Net Neutrality in the Arab Region: What VPNs Can Offer?

Net Neutrality

By: Mona Elswah

 

Introduction

When a certain Internet Service Provider (ISP) blocks access to WhatsApp calling service, slows down Netflix, or when a government blocks Twitter to quell rebellions, the fundamentals of Net Neutrality (NN) are critically shaken. This NN refers to the principle of an equal treatment to all data packets available on the Internet[1]. In other words, broadband providers cannot discriminate or block transmitting data packets based on the identity of the transmitter or the receiver[2]. Since the instigation of the Internet in 1960s, two principles guided its design: End-to-end principle which entails routing data packets autonomously and the best-effort (BE) principle that ensures fast routing rate to all data[3]. Hence, these no-discrimination based principles formed the key elements of the NN debate to emphasize the open and free Internet spirit[4].

The scope of the NN debate in developed-democratic states revolves around the prioritization and the discrimination of data rather than blocking access. For instance, in the United States and before abiding to the FCC’s Open Internet Order which was adopted in 2015[5], the giant ISP company Comcast slowed the popular movie and TV show streaming website Netflix when it refused to pay additional charges[6]. Moreover, Websites which wished to obtain a faster download speed had to pay extra charges (fast lanes). Meanwhile, this paid prioritization endangered websites that could not afford to pay these charges which may have threatened innovation if not stopped [7].

Instead of focusing on the non-discriminative rule in this debate, the discourse of the NN in the Arab region focused on blocking access. Traditionally, the widespread of the Internet in the Arab region has freed the long-silenced voices in this territory. Therefore, this relatively-new connective medium is considered the flame of the uprisings that catalyzed the Arab Spring in 2011[8]. Afterwards, the popularization of the Internet escalated the censorship level and led to blocking certain websites to date. Politics aside, obstructing access to certain online services is employed by some ISPs in the region to expand their revenues.

Internet Restrictions in The Region

Censoring and limiting access to the Internet is a thorny subject in the Arab region. Prior to the uprisings, banning and filtering certain websites for religious or political reasons was a common practice in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yamen and Syria while the unfiltered access was granted to Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Kuwait[9]. Yet, surveillance was adopted in countries that did not block access to the Internet services. When the pro-democracy wave took place in many countries in the region in 2011, the Internet was under the spotlight. Comparing the Freedom House reports in 2011[10] with 2016[11] on the Internet freedom would tell us that most of the countries that witnessed unrests declined in their Internet freedom rates.

Although the Internet was relatively liberated in Tunisia following the uprisings, the situation was worsened in other states. Egypt went from being a “partly free” in 2011 to a “not free” country in 2016 on the Internet freedom scale. According to the Freedom House report in 2016 on Egypt, few websites and applications were blocked[12]. It was reported[13] that most of the ISPs blocked VoIP services such as WhatsApp, Viber and Skype[14]. Yet, political, social and religious websites are freely available on the Internet including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Egypt’s neighbor Libya has a similar stance in terms of restrictions imposed on the Internet. Although the contentious political scene has elevated the limitations on the telecommunication services, the first blocking attempt to a content since the Gaddafi era took place in February, 2015 when the al-wasta news website was blocked for publishing anti-government opinions[15].

On the other hand, the latest figures of country scores published by the Freedom House on Internet freedom show that Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria are always on the bottom of the Internet freedom scale. Although Bahrain is considered among the most connected countries in the world with 93% penetration rate[16], websites that might shake the political stability of the country, traditions, public peace, or jeopardize ethics are subjects to suspension[17]. At least 1000 websites were blocked, including blogs and social media pages owned by human rights organizations and opinion leaders[18]. Reportedly, websites are consecutively filtered and an updated to-be-blocked list is sent to the Bharani ISPs regularly. Moreover, VoIP services were blocked by three mobile service operators and currently charging 13$ for this service[19].

Moreover, the Internet had no better luck in Saudi Arabia. Data requests travel from ISPs to two servers where they are either be filtered or blocked before being sent to global servers[20]. Regularly, websites containing anti-Islam, criticism to the ruling family, anti-government, illegal, offensive, harmful, pornographic, drug, or gambling-related content are blocked. Moreover, some websites are blocked on copyright grounds such as The Pirate Bay. Occasionally, Internet sites or social media pages related to NGOs, and those related to religious minorities are also blocked[21]. The VoIP services are susceptible to institute further restrictions on them. Viber services are currently suspended while WhatsApp and Skype are threatened to meet the same fate[22].

Lower down the list, the consecutively categorized “not free” on the Internet scale, Syria remained one of the most brutal countries in its battle with the Internet. Prominent news websites, such as the Lebanese news sites Al-Quds al-Arabi and Asharq al-Awst [23] were blocked. Although Facebook was unblocked in 2011, it is reported that some pages do not load properly and display error message instead. Moreover, Skype VoIP service suffers disruptions due to the government’s interference[24]. Therefore, citizens of these countries sought legal and illegal methods to unblock this long-list of unreachable websites and services.

VPNs in the Arabian Context:

Although there are several methods to unblock banned websites, VPNs are amongst the most popular. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are networks were data can be transmitted safely and securely over a public network such as the Internet[25]. These online anonymity services enable users to avoid connecting their IP addresses with their real identities, which will impede intrusion[26]. In other words, VPNs create an encrypted “tunnel” through which monitoring the data sent to or from the user may become implausible[27]. In addition to the secrecy VPNs provide to users while surfing the web, they can unblock websites by tricking servers.

One of the features VPNs provide is that it acts as a proxy; the data will appear like it was sent from wherever the server is[28]. In other words, a Syrian citizen can use a US-based VPN server to unblock Al-Quds al-Arabi and Asharq al-Aws; this VPN server will confuse any surveillance attempts and act as if this Syria-located citizen is in US instead and unblock the website for him/her. Moreover, the Syrian government will have hard time detecting the websites this citizen is visiting due to the data encryption associated with using VPNs unlike using proxy servers.

Employing VPNs is a common practice in China to get through the Great Firewall which bans popular websites including Facebook and Google[29]. Moreover, VPNs are used to open content to users on Netflix which they could not access due to Netflix’s geo-restrictions[30]. Although China is categorized as the lowest country pertaining Internet freedom, VPNs and proxy servers are used more in UAE and Saudi Arabia[31]. 36% of Internet users in both countries are savvy at using alternatives to circumvent blockage. Moreover, the Bahraini blocked opposition’s websites still receive large amount of traffic using VPNs and similar methods[32]

Banning these circumvention tools was a countermeasure employed by several governments in the region. Many VPNs were blocked in Saudi Arabia; however, some VPNs such as Hotspot Shield are still useable.[33] The Syrian government realized the promises of VPNs and their growing popularity among the opposition. Hence, the government blocked OpenVPN and created a fake VPN which included a malicious hacking program[34]. In addition, Dubai declared using VPNs as an illegal and punishable act in 2015[35]. Yet, these countermeasures and precautions can hardly stop citizens of these countries to use VPNs and similar tools. Whenever there is a blockage to a certain VPN server, another one will appear on the surface.

Conclusion:

The concept of net neutrality takes a different route in the Arab region. Although the fights over NN focused on the prioritization and discrimination of some data packets based on who pays more, the debate in the region is concerned with blocking access to these data. Blocking and filtering websites are outdated measures that are commonly practiced by authoritarian regimes for political or religious reasons. Yet, such suppressive protocols which threatens the essence of the Internet and jeopardize the citizens’ rights of free and open Internet. VPNs with their abilities to encrypt data and trick servers provided an alternative to unblock and to rebel these restrictions. Hence, attempts to block these VPNs were executed; however, complete blockage of these methods is implausible. Therefore, such methods provide a hope to apply the mere fundamentals of net neutrality in the region.

  1. 1. Schuett, Florian. “Network Neutrality: A Survey of the Economic Literature.” Review of Network Economics, 2010, 1-13. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1573420.
  2. Economides, Nicholas. “‘Net Neutrality’, Non-Discrimination and Digital Distribution of Content Through the Internet.” Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, 2008, 210-33. doi:10.2139/ssrn.977096.
  3. Ibid
  4. Belli, Luca, Primavera De Filippi, Vinton G. Cerf, and L. Pouzin. Net Neutrality Compendium: Human Rights, Free Competition and the Future of the Internet. Cham: Springer, 2016.
  5. FCC, By. “FCC Releases Open Internet Order.” Federal Communications Commission. 2015. Accessed October 11, 2016. https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-releases-open-internet-order.
  6. Misra, Vishal. “Net Neutrality Is All Good and Fine; the Real Problem Is Elsewhere.” SEAS Department Website. 2014. Accessed November 22, 2016. http://www.cs.columbia.edu/2014/net-neutrality/.
  7. Marsden, Christopher T. Net Neutrality: Towards a Co-Regulatory Solution. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
  8. Cattle, Amy. “ Digital Tahrir Square: An Analysis of Human Rights and The Internet Examined Through The Lens of The Egyptian Arab Spring”. Duke Journal of Comparitive & International Law 26. (2016). 417-449. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/djcil/vol26/iss2/4.
  9. Hofheinz, Albrecht. “The Internet in the Arab World: Playground for Political Liberalization.” 2005, 78-96. http://www.fes.de/ipg/IPG3_2005/07HOFHEINZ.PDF.
  10. Freedom House. “Freedom on the Net 2011: Global Scores.” 2011. Accessed October 3, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/MainScoreTable.pdf.
  11. Freedom House. “Table of Country Scores.” Freedom House. 2016. Accessed November 20, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/table-country-scores-fotn-2016.
  12. Freedom House. “Egypt.” Freedom House. 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/egypt
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Freedom House. “Libya.”2015. Freedom House.2015. Accessed October 2, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2015/libya.
  16. Freedom House. “Bahrain.” Freedom House. 2016. Accessed November 22, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/bahrain
  17. Freedom House. “Bahrain.” Freedom House.2015. Accessed October 11, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2015/bahrain
  18. Ibid
  19. Freedom House. “Bahrain.” Freedom House. 2016. Accessed November 22, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/bahrain
  20. Freedom House. “Saudi Arabia.”. 2016. Freedom House. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/saudi-arabia.
  21. Ibid
  22. Ibid
  23. Freedom House. “Syria.”2016. Freedom House. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/syria
  24. Ibid
  25. David C. Chou David C. Yen Amy Y. Chou, (2005),”Adopting virtual private network for electroniccommerce“, Industrial Management & Data Systems, Vol. 105 Iss 2 pp. 223 – 236
  26. Stefan Larsson Måns Svensson Marcin de Kaminski Kari Rönkkö Johanna Alkan Olsson, (2012),”Law,norms, piracy and online anonymity”, Journal of Research in Interactive Marketing, Vol. 6 Iss 4 pp. 260 -280
  27. Ibid.
  28. Schofield, Jack. “Using a VPN to Protect Your Web Use | Ask Jack.” The Guardian. 2012. Accessed November 2, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/askjack/2012/may/17/vpn-internet-privacy-security.
  29. Hal. “Father of the Great Firewall of China Blocked by His Own Creation.” The Guardian. 2016. Accessed November 22, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/06/great-firewall-of-china-blocked-fang-binxing.
  30. Fox-Brewster, Thomas. ” The Netflix VPN Ban Can Be Bypassed — Here’s How It Can Be Done Responsibly” Forbes. 2016. Accessed October 22, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2016/06/29/netflix-vpn-block-responsible-bypass/#54265b1670bc
  31. Statista. “VPN: Penetration Rate in Selected Countries 2015 | Statistic.” 2015. Accessed October 22, 2016. https://www.statista.com/statistics/301204/top-markets-vpn-proxy-usage/.
  32. Freedom House. “Bahrain.” Freedom House. Accessed November 22, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/bahrain
  33. Freedom House. “Saudi Arabia.”2016. Freedom House. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/saudi-arabia.
  34. Freedom House. “Syria.”2016. Freedom House. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/syria
  35. Freedom House. “United Arab Emirates.”2016. Freedom House. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/united-arab-emirates