By Matt Smith
DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is seeking to tighten control over web-based applications that offer a freedom to communicate that is impossible for most Saudis in the real world, and may even seek to ban such apps altogether.
Saudi Arabia remains a relatively closed society; gender mixing is restricted to a tight circle of relatives and family friends, and direct criticism of the ruling family or powerful conservative clergy is frowned upon. Morality police patrol the kingdom's few public spaces such as shopping malls to enforce rigid social rules.
Cyberspace presents considerably more complicated challenges than a shopping center, however, and Saudi authorities are alarmed by the unfettered contact that the Internet allows, including for activists who spread news and information not covered by state media.
With just under half the kingdom's nearly 27 million population younger than 25, according to the CIA Factbook, Saudis are avid users of social media of all kinds.
"People use social media ... more than asking to meet in person. It's safer," said a Jeddah-based activist, who like others interviewed for this story asked not to be named because he feared reprisals from state authorities. "We know they are watching us, but they cannot control us on social media."
The number of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia nearly doubled in six months to 2.9 million in July 2012, amounting to a little over 10 percent of the population, according to analysts Semiocast. By April of this year, the kingdom was the eighth biggest user of Twitter globally, accounting for 2.3 percent of all tweets, Semiocast estimates.
The kingdom now has the biggest number of viewers per capita of YouTube globally, according to the website, which has spawned a thriving industry producing homemade videos that is pushing at the boundaries of traditional Saudi programming.
These production houses are Saudi-run and alert to local sensitivities, avoiding politics and using satire to cover local news for example, and so Saudi authorities are turning a blind eye to their activities - for now.
Free and easy-to-use communication applications present a more immediate social - and commercial - hazard.
Tech-savvy young Saudis are increasingly moving away from traditional telephony provided by the kingdom's three mobile operators, Saudi Telecom Co (STC), Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) and Zain Saudi - the government has stakes in STC and Mobily - and toward apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
The telephone and messaging applications allow users to circumvent strict state controls with a degree of anonymity. According to the website of WhatsApp, each user is able to create up to 50 group chats of up to 50 participants each.
"If you open the phone of any Saudi you'll find at least 10 to 15 WhatsApp groups - some groups have more than 5,000 members and send out a daily news round-up," said a rights activist in Qatif in the restive Eastern Province, home to many of the kingdom's Shi'ite minority.
"WhatsApp is now used much more than email, because it's seen as easier and more secure."
BREAKING THE LAW
For the Saudi ruling class, which runs the country according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, these are worrying trends.
"Non-democratic governments are terrified by the role of social media and the threats posed to their regimes by open and uncensored online communications," said Craig Newman, head of the Freedom2Connect Foundation (F2CF), a New York-based non-profit organization.
The Saudi regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), said in March that communications apps, including Skype, Viber and WhatsApp, broke unspecified laws and ordered operators carrying these services to comply with the regulations without making clear how.
Then in June the regulator banned Viber altogether. Saudi newspapers a week later carried reports that WhatsApp would also be banned within weeks, though nothing has been heard on this since.
CITC did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but said in a statement that it was protecting society from "negative aspects that could harm the public interest".
WhatsApp and Twitter declined to comment, as did Saudi Telecom, Mobily and Zain Saudi, all three of which have lost income as customers switch to Web-based alternatives. Skype did not respond to requests for comment.
The operator losses - and customer savings - are particularly significant when it comes to the country's large expatriate population using such applications to call or message home. According to the CIA Factbook, there are 5.6 million expats in Saudi, about 21 percent of the population.
Newspapers, quoting unnamed state sources, said CITC has asked operators to find ways to block and monitor the apps.
Respected U.S. software engineer Moxie Marlinspike said he had been contacted by Mobily and asked to build surveillance tools to intercept messages on Twitter and other services.
Mobily in May denied it had contacted Marlinspike, but the engineer gave Reuters copies of emails from a Mobily employee supporting his assertion.
Human rights activists say social media and tools such as WhatsApp are vital to their work. Television and local newspapers, which do not deviate from the official line, do not cover rights issues.
"We're getting news out to the rest of the world any way we can - if we don't have secure communications then Saudi Arabia will go back to being the Kingdom of the Dark, where nobody knows what's going on," said the Qatif-based activist.
Another Qatif-based activist said he was the administrator of six WhatsApp groups, which combined had more than 1,000 members. WhatsApp is preferred because unlike some other instant messaging apps, WhatsApp has the option for only administrators to know the identity of group members.
"If they close WhatsApp it will be difficult to send group messages via mobile; individual texts will be very expensive," said the second activist.
Experts say that banning the likes of WhatsApp will just push communications to other mobile applications, or possibly to the less convenient use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and Tor.
VPNs use an encrypted server connection, usually in another country, which makes it appear as though the user is actually in that location. Secure browser Tor is able to disguise the origins of user data by sending it through three servers picked randomly among 3,000 dotted across the globe.
Social media played a big role in nurturing and coordinating protests that ultimately led to the ousting of long-standing rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Saudi Arabia has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to avoiding similar unrest.
King Abdullah has ordered $110 billion in government handouts and welfare schemes, but activists who attacked the government on human rights grounds have also been imprisoned.
"There are people who misuse social networking and try to send false information and false evaluation of the situation in the kingdom," security spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki told a news conference in February.
He later told Reuters that authorities did not want to limit Internet access on security grounds, however.
Some among the Saudi elite have argued that censorship is a waste of time.
"This is a futile contest - launching a war against media, and especially social media, that are open to free expression is a lost cause," Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire with a stake in Twitter, said in a March television interview.
But Prince Alwaleed, in his late 50s, is a rare liberal voice. The leading members of Saudi's ruling royals, now in their 70s or 80s, are experiencing a generational disconnect.
"They don't understand us," said the Jeddah-based activist. "They have one way to control the kingdom - they say they guarantee our safety ... We ask for more."
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Jon Hemming, Sonya Hepinstall and Will Waterman)