Just a little more than two years ago, the world witnessed the overthrow of three North African dictators and ensuing protests across much of the Arab world on television and social media, the latter of which was much lauded as a catalyzing tool. But while 2011 was a time of hopefulness and increased openness throughout much of the region, 2012 brought about increased repression, both online and off. From Bahrain, named an “enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders, to Egypt, the trend is toward censorship, surveillance, and increased regulation.
But although governments may appear to have the upper hand, the recent crackdowns are only one side of the story. In 2012, we saw Jordanians and Egyptians take a cue from digital activists in the U.S., instituting SOPA-style protests against regulatory measures in their countries. In Lebanon, we saw digital protests crush the Lebanese Internet Regulation Act and, more recently, stand up against an overreaching data request from the country's internal security forces.
Though digital rights activists have seen success in several cases, it has been difficult to assess just how representative their views are. One of the reasons that YouTube was able to block a controversial video in Egypt without much outcry, for example (a decision which EFF stood against alongside the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights), was because of a widespread perception that Egyptians—and Arabs more broadly—are in favor of censorship.
That is what makes a recent study from Northwestern University's Qatar campus so interesting. The study, a pan-Arab survey of 9,693 adults in eight Arab countries, found that a majority (61%) of respondents believe that “people should be able to express their opinions online, no matter what those opinions might be.” Furthermore, only 12% disagreed with the statement, with the remainder responding “neutral/don’t know/no answer.”
If 61% seems low, it is worth noting that a 2011 study from the USC Annenberg School’s Center for Digital Future found that only 70% of Americans believe that people should be free to criticize their government online (13% of users disagree), and only 52% believe that people should be able to express "extreme" ideas online.
Also notable are the countries represented by respondents: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. While the first two are known for their relative openness (at least when it comes to the Internet) and the next two remain in flux following their uprisings, the four Gulf states included in the survey are considerably more conservative (and censorious) and, apart from Bahrain, have seen little public opposition to government censorship. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia showed the highest percentage of support of free expression, a whopping 76%.
Despite widespread opposition against censorship, however, a majority of respondents expressed support for tighter regulation of the Internet (specifically, the survey's prompt reads: "The Internet in my country should be more tightly regulated than it is now"). It is not clear, however, that this correlates to censorship; "Internet regulation" does not definitively mean censorship, but rather it can refer to a number of things such as the control of domain registration or intellectual property. Given the wording of the question, it is unclear what type of regulation respondents favor.
At a time when governments around the world are cracking down on the Internet, it is heartening to see such widespread support of free speech online. And such data is also key for activists everywhere in countering regulations from both governments and companies that assume some public support of censorship.