Electronic Media Regulation in Saudi Arabia: The Limits of A Legislative Approach

We at Mediolana do not count ourselves as being in the vanguard of the electronic media revolution; indeed, notwithstanding the company’s Twitter account, Facebook page and a few other such indicators of Web 2.0 activity, we probably lean towards the school of thought that regards really new media as a favourable thing rather than as something integral to our existence. Nonetheless, we were still surprised to read of the dispute between chat client producer WhatsApp Inc. (‘WAI’) and the government of Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (‘CITC’). The CITC is promising ‘punitive action’ – which is likely to mean some sort of blocking of WhatsApp Messenger – in the event of WAI’s non-compliance with its control and monitoring requirements. The Viber service has already been blocked in the KSA, and Skype and Tango are reported to be a source of similar concern for the Saudi authorities.

Of course, it is a fact that electronic forms of media – including social apps – do not exist in a legal vacuum. But a legal framework which requires regulatory bodies to make deals on a case-by-case basis with various service providers is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Firstly, there are just too many of them: no sooner will one agreement have been reached than another service provider enter the market. These applications are proliferating with incredible velocity. Secondly, such an approach assumes the existence of a conventional service provider that can be negotiated with. Not all social apps will necessarily have an identifiable owner, particularly in the case of open source programmes. And thirdly, states can be notoriously slow in adapting to, let alone regulating, new technologies; by the time a particular social app has come to the attention of the authorities and been understood, it has probably already reached the point of critical mass, and disrupting or blocking access to a popular communications service can have all kinds of other undesirable effects on sectors such as business and education. Exactly how the CITC will square this circle is anyone’s guess.

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