A new flush of legislation drafted by the Qatar government will tighten internet controls largely affecting online media sources and social network users. Reports note that the law – currently in review with the government’s Advisory Council — will punish users who gain access to state information systems without rights, and news agencies that publish content considered threatening to state safety.
This law could naturally translate into the persecution of journalists who write content that doesn’t sit well with the powers-that-be in Qatar, yet it is characterized by Qatari media as legislation intended to bar against cyber crimes, which it very well might do. But, in the long run, the law is emblematic of the government joining its neighboring nations in their efforts to intensify internet censorship – the most notable of which are Syria with its regular web blackouts, and Saudi Arabia in its efforts to control VoIP applications.
While it’s no surprise that another Gulf state has extended internet access regulations, Qatar has been known as one of the more progressive Middle Eastern countries in its relationship to the web. The OpenNet Initiative attributes the broadening of Arab language website content in part to a project stemming from the Qatar Supreme Council for Information and Communication Technology. 86% of the country’s population has access to the internet, according to Internet World Stats recorded in December 2012. And it has been a leader in the Gulf for broadband penetration. So, what gives?
Qatar’s internet clampdown reflects the sustained anxiety in the Middle East around social media use derived from the position it played in the Arab Spring in 2011. Sites including Facebook and Twitter became forums for rebel organization and online protest leading to physical protests from Egypt to Bahrain to Syria. Creating legislation barring the publishing of online content voicing opposition to government authority – be it video or other written news – gives the ruling party an easy out when cracking down on dissenting media or individuals.
On a broader scale, the new internet codes reflect the deepening chasm between countries for and against web controls – a rift becoming ever wider, particularly as global forums continue to fail on coming to universal decisions regarding the regulation of the internet. Certain countries – Russia, for example – have taken the issue into their own hands. Whether or not Qatar’s new ruling will have an influence on other regional policies remains to be seen.