The OpenNet Initiative Report on Oman

internetaccessoman
(Photo credits: squacco)

The OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University, has published last month an annual report on filtering and surveillance of the Internet in Oman.

The report summarizes the factors that contribute in censoring the internet including the legal framework and Omantel’s terms and conditions. The report concludes that censorship in Oman is primarily made on social basis as it focuses on pornographic, homosexual, and anti-hacking websites, but does not necessarily involve political censorship. The report claims that Omantel uses American-made censorship products such as SmartFilter.

The report also claims that the Omani government monitors “private communications, including mobile phones, e-mail, and Internet chat room exchanges, and interrogates chat room users who are critical of government officials or policies by tracking them through their ISP addresses”. The report cites as its authority on this fact the US State Department Human Rights Report that was published in March 2008.

The report is very interesting, but it has a number of inaccuracies (the majority of the websites mentioned are not actually blocked), cites irrelevant cases to support some points (the Omania case was a defamation case and had nothing to do with surveillance), and makes no mention Article 61(4) of the Telecom Law and the recent case of Ali Al Zuwaidi.

However, the report still paints a very general idea in the situation in Oman and how people are pushed to self-censor themselves even though the constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech. You can read it via this link.

My Website Got Blocked by Omantel

Censored

In Oman, the currently only Internet Service Provider in the country, Omantel, has the ability to block any website it desires, we assume that this is done to censor pornographic websites and websites that attack the current government. We do not know if this is an automated process or one manually managed by actual employees of the company. I am not sure on what legal basis it has this authority to censor website because I do not have access to all the laws from here.

Anyway, sometime last week, I discovered that my website, myITLawyer, got blocked by Omantel making it inaccessible from Oman. I do not know when exactly in got blocked because I have been away from the country since the beginning of this year. Once Omantel blocks a website, there isn’t anything really that you can do about it other than send an email to an account called “admin@omantel.com”. I did that, but instantly the email bounced back indicating that it could not reach a certain recipient.

I decided to make a complaint to the Telecommunication Regulation Authority as it is responsible for receiving complaints against ISPs. Its Consumer Guide specifies that you have to give the operator 15 days to resolve the issue before you make a complaint. During this period, I asked a friend of mine in Oman to call Omantel and tell them (1) to unblock the website, and (2) that their email account has a problem. There is no special line that you can call to solve censorship issues, the help desk person offered no solution other than “to send a message to the specified email account” even though we told him that messages bounce back. After I heard this from my friend I sent another email to that account and the message again bounced back.

When the 15 days passed I sent my complaint to the TRA who responded after one business day saying that they forwarded the complaint to Omantel and that they will look into the issue. A whole week passed, my website remained blocked, and I haven’t heard from anything, I emailed the TRA again this morning, and then responded within hours saying that my website is now unblocked, and now it is. Of course I never heard ANYTHING from Omantel at all during this period.

It took me exactly ONE MONTH to get my website unblocked since the day I sent my first email to Omantel. I expect that it had already been blocked for a month before I discovered it.

Currently, the only way to have your website unblocked if it gets blocked by Omantel is to follow the procedure I followed, if the TRA did not solve my problem my next step was to take legal action against the TRA at the Administrative Court.

I cannot believe how ridiculous this censorship business is. In October last year Omantel blocked Gmail, Blogger, and a number of other Google websites by mistake. Imagine the damage blocking Gmail did to businesses and individuals. My website was blocked for a whole month in which I obviously had to continue paying for hosting. It is unbelievable that Omantel seems to be totally unaccountable and has absolute authority to block and unblock whatever it wishes randomly.

In the age of user generated content attempting to censor the internet is just totally useless. Anyone in Oman RIGHT NOW can use any search engine and find a porn blog in less than 5 minutes, you don’t need to be a computer genius to do it and it is IMPOSSIBLE to censor everything when a new site is created every second.

It is just unbelievable.