The Internet In the Arab World
A New Space of Repression?
All Roads Lead Backwards
The Internet became available in Yemen in 1996. From this time on, two Yemeni companies have controlled Internet service provision: Teleyemen and The General Institution for Communication. The number of the Yemeni Internet users in 2004 was estimated to be only 150,000 (1). The total number of subscribers is far less than this number, as every subscription is used by more than one user.
In June 1997, the number of Yemeni Internet users was estimated to be 920. In November 1997 the number reached 840 users, and in October 2000, there were 2000 users (2). The number multiplied quickly after the year 2000 and reached more than 150,000 in April 2004. The latest estimation is considered to be quite small in comparison to the population in Yemen, which is around 20 million.
Statistics show that there were 140,000 personal computers in Yemen in 2003, which means that there were roughly 7 personal computers for every 1000 people. By the end of 2002 there were 248 Yemeni websites on the Internet. There were 51 governmental websites, 15 news websites, 24 embassy and organizational websites, 91 private business websites, 23 educational websites, 6 bank and insurance company websites, and 7 websites of forums and various Internet services (3).
As reported by Al-Hayat 76% of the Internet users are males and 24% are females. Those who have a university degree constitute 50% of the total number of users. 40% of the users are between 21 and 25, 31% are between 26 and 30, and 15% are between 31 and 35. (4)
Removing the Barriers
Both the Yemeni Ministry of Communications and the Yemeni Ministry of Culture have banned and monitored many websites, actions that have led to a decline in Internet usage in Yemen. Governmental policy is not limited only to monitoring of the websites. The government went farther when it ordered that Net cafes remove the barriers separating one user from another, thereby violating users' privacy. Visitors of these Net cafes were used to having a private cabinet to themselves and to logging on to the websites they chose without being seen by anyone else.
"use of the net cafes has declined, notably because the visitors cannot enjoy privacy when surfing the Internet. Visitors consider the removal of the barriers to be in violation of their privacy because they feel that they are monitored when they want to check their e-mail or send messages or something of that sort"
Tawfeeq Mohammad, Yemeni Net café owner
The net cafés in Yemen are important due to the economic problems in the country which make it difficult for people to afford both a personal computer. and the expensive Internet connection. It is said that, for a period of time, some officials in the Ministry of Communication cut the free Internet connection service provided by the state in order to make users turn to the paid Internet connection service. (6)
In 2000 the number of the net cafes in Yemen was about 50; the number increased over the years until there were 250 net cafes in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, alone. Moving the barriers between the users in the net cafes has led to a more than 300% decrease in net cafes' revenues and the bankruptcy of a majority of the net cafes. Many other Yemeni net cafes closed due to the administrative and technical monitoring imposed on them. Such monitoring contradicts the government's repeated statements that Yemen is broadening the field of communication and information technology to a larger audience and that it intends to establish an e-government. It is expected that the recent regulations will continue to cause the number of net cafes to decrease (7).
Explaining the government's use of censorship Kamal Al-Gabry, a director in the Ministry of Communication, has asserted that "censorship is very important, because the Internet is a double-edged sword." Opposed to Al-Gabry's opinion are some Yemeni law professionals who think that the authorities have grossly violated users' right to privacy and have broken the laws that safeguard the right to free communication. They also believe the blocking and banning of websites to be a means of control adopted by a Ministry of Communications that has modeled itself as the protector of the values and the morality of Yemeni people. (8)
The Yemeni government, like other governments which ban and censor websites, justifies the bans with calls for the preservation of "morality." The ban extends to other political and cultural websites. The Elaph news website, run by a London-based Saudi commercial company, was banned for a period of time upon grounds that the site was posting "sexual material." However, the real reason for the ban as stated by the Yemen Observer website was that Elaph had published reports containing personal criticism of the Yemeni President Ali Abd'allah Saleh and his elder son Ahmed as well (9).
1- Al-Riyadh newspaper website. 14 September 2003. visited on 21 March 2004.
2- Dr. Rasem Al-Gammal, "Human Capital in the Information Society in Arab states, Arab magazine for Science and Information," June 2003, 24.
3- Al-Hayat newspaper, issue No 14903, 15 January 2004.
5- Al-Riyadh newspaper website, 14 September 2003, accessed on 21 March 2004
6- Elaph website, 8 January 2004, accessed on 19 January 2004
7- Al-Riyadh newspaper website, on 14 September 2003, accessed on 21 March 2004.
9- Yemen Observer website, 11 May 2002