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Ruling the Arab Internet: An Analysis of Internet Ownership Trends of Six Arab Countries

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ISP Overview

The population (unit of analysis) that we focus on in this study is the individual Internet service providers (ISPs) from each country. ISPs are for–profit companies that provide Internet access to customers in exchange for a monthly fee (Kayne, 2010). Since these ISPs are businesses, if they are incorporated in the stock market, individuals, other companies, or governments can buy shares and invest in them. Understanding who is investing in ISPs is important because ISPs have a number of powers that directly affect their subscribers. For instance, ISPs can monitor internet activity, and they have the ability to block content, as Sussman (2000) reinforces by stating that key ways of censoring include: “devising Internet–explicit licensing and regulation, applying existing restrictive print and broadcast laws to the Web, filtering Internet content through control of the servers, or censoring electronic content deemed unacceptable after dissemination” (p. 542). Furthermore, ISPs can block websites, limit bandwidth, or block access altogether.7 If a particular individual or group has control over a telecommunications company or network and desires to restrict certain content, it directly affects the user; this highlights a strong relationship between ownership and control. This is highly relevant to the Arab World where many governments often regulate their Internet media (as well as other media), and regional powers looking to further implement their own agendas are investing in many Arab Internet and telecommunications companies.

 

Theoretical FRAMEWORK

At the launch of the Beirut (Lebanon) Chapter of The Internet Society8 in October 2010, the past COO of The Internet Society—Jon McNerney—stated that no one owns the Internet. Paraphrasing him, he discussed how, on the contrary, “the People” own the Internet. We happen to disagree, however. The reason for this disagreement is reinforced by our theoretical framework, which is grounded in the Agenda–Setting Theory proposed by Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw (1972). This theory suggests that the perceived importance of issues and the type of content available are constructed and framed in a specific and deliberate way to implement the agenda of the media power in the general public. The public perceives what is being presented as information that is more factual, true, and real, and is thus more credible and more important (McComb & Shaw, 1972). This theory relates to our work, because Internet media regulators, regulations, policies, and access are often influenced by the owners of the individual companies,9 so one may draw inferences that as increasing numbers of people are investing in Internet access, more control is being exerted by these owners with the intention to not only increase their financial assets, but influence public opinion, control content, and perpetuate their agenda(s).

 

Using Saudi Arabia as an example, even though Internet users to a large extent are their own gatekeepers, the Saudi Arabian government is explicit about the content they block. The Saudi Arabian Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC)—the body responsible for regulating information and communication technologies in the Kingdom—states clearly on its website that, “[blocking content] saves many of them from all the harmful and offensive content [on] the Internet” (Communication and Information Technology Commission, 2010, Conclusion). Rinnawi (2011) continues to articulate the gravity of political and cultural censorship by listing it as the first of the six main obstacles he presents facing/hindering the Arab Internet (p. 9),10 and also describing the various types of Internet controls and restrictions each country employs (pp. 19–24).

 

Other studies have documented the connection between ownership, regulation, and available content (Rinnawi, 2011; Fandy, 2007; Hofheinz, 2005; Adel, 2003; Aladwani, 2003; McChesney & Schiller, 2003; Al–Tawil, 2001; Cave & Mason, 2001; Compaine, 2001), while additional literature exists highlighting the relationship between government regulation, heavy start–up costs, and limited ability for investment (Rinnawi, 2011; Aladwani, 2003; Ngini, Furnell, & Ghita, 2002). Sussman (2000) echoes this by underscoring how important the Internet in Saudi Arabia is to businesses, yet key Saudi Arabian figures believe that the Internet was delayed until technology “was available to bar access to information contrary to Islamic values and dangerous to our society” (p. 540). Moreover, he identifies the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) as what the Human Rights Watch called “the most wired country in the Middle East,” yet “the regional leader” in restricting access to websites (p. 540). Rinnawi (2011) reinforces this by stating: “…the Arab governments attempt to do their best to be updated in the field of the telecommunications and the Internet. However, they did and still [are] doing their [best] efforts to restrain the development of the Internet in their countries” (p. 1).

 

Methodology

To answer the research question stated previously, we decided to conduct a critical empirical analysis (document analysis) utilizing unobtrusive methods with the aspiration of finding links, relationships, and connections to other Arab individuals, Arab governments/countries, or international companies, organizations, or governments. We decided to focus on six countries because of the availability of the information we were accessing as well as the various geographic locations within the region, demographic consistencies, and the political and economic situations and influences: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon.11 We then searched for a listing of these countries’ Internet service providers (usually found on their Ministry of Telecommunications or some other related Ministry’s website).12 We mapped out the ownership of each individual ISP by going to their website for that respective country, and scrutinized the websites with ambitions to discover who and/or what has shares in the company (usually found in the “About Us,” “History,” or the “FAQ” sections of the website. They may also have a corporate website dedicated to this information). We recorded the website URLs that we used (for instance, we took the URL down from the “About Us” section, as well as from a company that is invested in it, and/or a government website if a government is investing in it).

 

We also included the analysis of the “6 W’s” of each country’s ISPs (the who, what, when, where, why, and how). Although we mainly focused on the “who” and “where,” this focus included examining who owned the companies and what their nationality is, what other business or work they are involved in, where the headquarters of the company (and of its parent company and subsidiaries) are located, when these companies were established (as well as other important dates and information related to ownershi,p such as mergers and acquisitions), why are they investing in them, and how their ownership is connected to other individuals, governments, and/or larger companies. Part of the purpose of this was to look critically for connections between Arab countries/the Arab World, as well as with international governments and corporations.

 

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1 This study was originally completed as a research requirement for a graduate seminar (Mass Media in the Modern Arab World) at the American University of Beirut during the 2010 spring semester. The course was co–instructed by: Dr. Nabil Dajani, PhD., and Dr. Jad Melki, PhD. We are very grateful for their assistance, and their suggestions on how to improve this paper.

2 This study was presented at the Global Dilemmas of Security and Development in the Middle East international conference hosted by the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland on 10 November 2010.

3 Michael is a graduate student in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences pursuing an MA in sociology and the primary correspondent: Box 2127, American University of Beirut, Bliss Street, Beirut, Lebanon. Telephone: +(961) 71–363574. E–mail: mjo01@aub.edu.lb.

4 Helen is a graduate student in the Institute for Middle East Studies pursuing an MA in Middle Eastern studies with a concentration in conflict resolution.

5 This statistic was retrieved from “Internet World Statistics: Internet Usage in the Middle East” at: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats5.htm.

6 One only has to go so far as to observe the amount of Internet service providers (ISPs) each country has. But the amount of economic and developmental (e.g., infrastructural) potential is huge!

7 Evidence of this is seen in reports coming out of multiple countries—most notably the United States—as the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to battle service providers over the issue of “net neutrality.” Part of this battle includes discussion over how much regulatory power ISPs can exert over their clientele base. For more information, see the following articles: Kang, C. (2010, May 7); Wyatt, E. (2010, May 6); Shields, T. (2010, May 6); and McCullagh, D. (2010, April 6).

8 The Internet Society (ISOC) is a Geneva–based, non–profit organization founded in 1992 whose mission is to provide leadership in Internet related standards, education, and policy. They seek to ensure the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of people throughout the world. For more information, see: http://www.isoc.org.

9 See: Bercovici, J. (2010, May 27), and http://www.natvan.com/who–rules–america/.

10 He also includes expensive costs, poverty, illiteracy (digital illiteracy in particular), infrastructure, and language barriers (pp. 9–10). Furthermore, limited access, infrastructure limitations, few (if any) regulations or oversight (as well as watchdog groups such as those that exist in the U.S. and Europe) in existence governing company consolidation and mergers including the effect they have on the consumer, and much consumption, but little production (such as blogging) are also issues plaguing Arab Internet.

11 Bahrain and Kuwait were not included, but are still discussed later in this work because of their connection with other Arab countries.

12 The individual websites will be given with the results by country analysis.

13 In fact, many of these emails “bounced back” (having never even been received) even though the contact email address listed on the website was often the email correspondence link specifically for customer service and/or a company inquiry. An interesting occurrence that happened, however, was when we emailed one company whose email “bounced back” to us with a question about rates of service, they promptly sent us the information we requested.

14 Of that outside investment, the majority of it comes from France via France Telecom through Orange, its commercial arm.

15 The only company that had women on its management team was Batelco in Bahrain.

16 Although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (http://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx).

17 Ibid.

18 Information retrieved from: http://www.emox.com/corporate/contact/.

19 Information retrieved from: http://www.internetegypt.com/Why_IE.htm.

20 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Reuters (2009, March 23).

25 This is particularly interesting as well because according the Orascom Telecom website (About Us: http://www.orascomtelecom.com/about/Contents/default.aspx?ID=765), Mobinil was O.T.’s “first operation,” and is “one of Egypt’s five largest companies on Cairo & Alexandria Stock Exchange (“CASE”) in terms of market capitalization.”

29 VimpelCom “owns Russia’s second–largest mobile phone operator, as well as service providers in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, and Cambodia” (BBC, 2010).

30 Ibid.

31 For more information, see the official 2010 VimpelCom–Weather Press Release at: http://www.otelecom.com/media/PressRelease.aspx.

33 Including operations throughout Egypt and Algeria (http://ir.telecomegypt.com.eg/Company%20Milestones.asp).

36 Information retrieved from: http://tinyurl.com/TEDataPressRelease.

39 Information retrieved from: http://www.yalla.com/.

40 Although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (http://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx).

41 No information could be found on the Jordanian Ministry of Telecommunications website as to the official number of ISPs.

43 It is interesting to note, however, that in their Chief Executive Statement on the Batelco Bahrain website, they discuss competition: “In Bahrain, there are now over 75 operators holding 185 licenses. The intense competitive environment, combined with ongoing regulatory reform, is a great motivator to keep us innovating and improving for the benefit of our customers” (Ibid.).

44 Information retrieved from: http://www.beta.batelco.jo/pages.php?menu_id=8.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

50 This has not been updated on TE–Data – Jordan’s website, however.

51 Information retrieved from: http://www.vtel.jo/?q=node/13.

53 Although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (http://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx).

54 Information originally posted on the Ministry of Communication and Technology website, http://www.moct.gov.sy, but has since been removed or relocated.

55 See: OpenNet (2009), and in fact the Syrian Telecom website clearly states that: “…[Syrian Telecom] has the rights exclusively for telecommunications in all parts of the Syrian Arab Republic…” (Information retrieved from: http://ste.gov.sy/index.php?m=58).

58 This is further reinforced by the banning of certain websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and online services such as Skype as well as many others claiming they are tools that can be used to communicate with Israel (this includes closely monitoring blog sites as well). Even though many of these bans and restrictions can easily by circumvented by proxies and other services, strong regulation of the Internet and what is posted online (as well as in print, broadcast, and other media) is the norm in the Syrian dictatorship state. For more information, see: Associated Press (2008, March 26); Ali, A. (2007, November 27); and the OpenNet Initiative (2009).

59 Information retrieved from: http://www.internetworldstats.com/me/ae.htm, but although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the Telecommunications Research Associates (TRA) (http://www.tra.com/).

60 Information retrieved from: http://www.internetworldstats.com/me/sa.htm, but although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (http://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx).

62 Yunis, E. M. (2003, February 19), accessed from: http://www.isp–planet.com/research/rankings/ksa.html.

64 Information retrieved from: http://www.internetworldstats.com/me/sa.htm, but although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (http://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx).

65 Information retrieved from: http://www.idm.net.lb/about/index.asp.

66 See: Baradei, D. (2006, October).

67 Ibid.

69 Information retrieved from: http://www.saudioger.com/overview_board.html.

70 Ibid.

71 Information retrieved from: http://www.saudioger.com/overview_board.html.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid.

75 Information retrieved from: http://www.saudioger.com/overview_key.html.

76 Ibid.

77 Information retrieved from: http://www.bankmed.com.lb/Pages/Profile.aspx.

78 Information retrieved from: http://www.medgulf.com/story.aspx.

79 Although Qatar is not included in our analysis, Rinnawi (2011) additionally states that Qatar Telecom (the Q–Tel Company) has a monopoly over Qatari Internet (p. 130).

80 The Arabic term wasta refers to personal connections (and literally means “by means of”) that encompass all forms of political, economic, or social capital that an individual or group may access. This is a very important concept to achieving success in almost any endeavor or career in the Arab world as it alludes to nepotism and favoritism, and reflects widespread corruption.

81 This conclusion may have been particularly displeasing to the institution that commissioned and supported their research: The World Bank.

82 Indeed many of the mergers and acquisitions have only occurred recently since 2005. The study that Varoudakisa & Rossotto (2004) conducted was done almost a decade ago (submitted 1 February 2002 (p. 59), and merely published in 2004).