Bahrain Government Takes Direct Control over Internet through Central System that Blocks Websites

2016-08-09 - 10:18 p

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): The Bahraini authorities announced that telecommunications companies in Bahrain that provide internet services are obliged to purchase a unified technical system that blocks websites and is linked to a central system run by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) - a Bahraini state body that issues licenses for internet service providers (ISPs) and regulates their work.

This new regulation allows the government to have full control over the internet infrastructure in the country, and directly block or provide access to sites.

According to a technical expert, this government decision allows the authorities to block any website immediately on all networks, without the need to report to internet service providers and request blocking the sites. This facilitates the process to a great extent and makes it much harder to circumvent.

Based on this decision, the telecommunications companies will take care of the expenses of the new system, while the TRA will be responsible for specifying the type of the system that all the companies are obligated to purchase, and regulating the website blocking process by updating the list of banned sites on a central system.

Bahrain has banned hundreds of websites since the spread of forums and blogs in 2001. The authorities blocked more sites following the 2011 uprising, including the pages of political opposition societies, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain Mirror, and Lualua TV websites, among others.

In a series of recent measures, the authorities banned 3 telecommunications companies from running Telegram. Observers say that the reason behind this move might be that opposition groups and media sites linked to these groups use Telegram to create channels, through which they send their news pieces and publications.

Technical Expert: Government Seeks Central Control over Blocking Systems

A well-known American internet and digital security expert, Bill Marczak, told Bahraini Mirror that he was surprised that the authorities in Bahrain resorted to these kind of measures, even though the former blocking system was effective.

"I don't think there's a pressing need to implement this new system. It seems that many opposition websites are already blocked," he said, adding that he thinks the government "really wants to have more control. They want to have a censorship device inside the ISP that they directly control."

"The new system seems to be mainly about centralization of control. So the government can take action without asking ISPs and can quickly respond to new websites to block, like enforcing all companies to block Telegram, giving no tech. excuses for any ISP," said Marczak, when asked whether the reason behind using this new system was the ineffectiveness of the former one or the refusal of some ISPs to block certain sites upon the government's request.

"They just want to consolidate their control. Yes, if you look at Telegram for example, it was not blocked when we checked on Mena and 2connect. Who knows why. Maybe the government only sent the order to Batelco, Viva and Zain," he noted.

Crackdown Extends from Diraz to Internet

The American expert who is active at Bahrain Watch further stated that he thinks the authorities are implementing it now because the government is launching a crackdown in all areas, such as banning al-Wefaq, revoking the nationality of Sheikh Isa Qassim, "So they're also cracking down online too, seeking to exercise more control."

The TRA'S decision came two days after a technical report was issued, confirming that the Bahraini authorities are "deliberately" disrupting cell phone networks and internet at night in the Diraz area, where an open-ended popular rally is still being held outside the house of the country's Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, since the authorities stripped him of his nationality on June 20, 2016.
The report issued by Human Rights Watch said that technical experiments made by specialists show that cell towers belonging to Batelco and Zain appear to be turned off. Bahrain Watch suggests in the report that it may be a government order forcing the companies to throttle internet access.

Bahrain Watch suggests in the report that it may be a government order forcing the companies to throttle internet access, indicating that, according to Freedom House, during Bahrain's 2011 Arab Spring-inspired protests, internet traffic in and out of the country dropped by 20 percent, "which could have been a result of intentional governmental throttling or a side effect of surveillance-related tinkering with the network."

Other Precautionary Measures

The decision also said that the TRA may send "exceptional" demands to communication companies to block specific websites, binding the company to execute the order within 24 hours.

In this regard, Marczak said it is unclear why the government put these precautionary measures, although it is able to block any website immediately. However, he suggested that the government took these measures to deal with the emergency cases when the central system disrupts.

Rare Public Circulation

Despite being one of the rare announcements openly published about the official measures related to the blocking of websites, the decision didn't reveal the official party responsible for deciding what websites should be blocked, only noting that "it is the official party responsible for evaluating the content of websites."

Activists have always demanded to know the party responsible for identifying the websites that should be blocked in the country or suing them, if necessary. They had doubts regarding the Ministry of Information and Interior.

Since 2012, Reporters without Borders classified Bahrain within the list of state enemies of Internet and said that the Internet infrastructure in Bahrain is totally under the authorities' control, which made it easy to monitor information on the Internet.

In March 2015, Reporters without Borders launched a technical operation to decode 9 websites in 11 states in the "enemies of Internet" list, celebrating the World Day against Cyber Censorship. Among the 9 websites, there was the Bahrain Mirror website that was blocked since June 2011.

In its annual report about Internet freedoms, Freedom House classified Bahrain as "not free" state since 2011 and in 2014 Bahrain occupied the second rank on the Arab level and the eighth worldwide as the worst countries in Internet freedoms.

Throughout 5 years, Freedom House documented the practices of Bahraini authorities in their war on the Internet from imprisoning activists over posting tweets, spying on users, blocking social and political websites, warning about discussing specific political stances, defaming the protestors, inciting hatred and spreading false information.

Internet penetration stands at 90% with respect to the Bahraini population that account to 1.1 million citizens.


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