Censorship, Regulation, Surveillance

Most Arab nationals support greater internet regulation (57%), though regulation need not necessarily mean government censorship to respondents. More nationals worry about companies, compared to governments, checking what they do online, so “regulation” to some respondents could mean greater protection against corporate overreach online.

A majority of nationals also supports the freedom to express ideas online even if they are unpopular (54%). Support for free speech online increased by six percentage points in Tunisia and 14 percentage points in Egypt since 2015 (Tunisia: 43% in 2016 vs. 37% in 2015, Egypt: 59% in 2016 vs. 45% in 2015), but remained relatively stable elsewhere, except Saudi Arabia where support declined 11 percentage points (53% in 2016 vs. 64% in 2015).

Across the region, more self-identified cultural progressives than conservatives support both greater internet regulation and freedom of speech online (internet regulation: 69% progressives vs. 53% conservatives, freedom of speech: 68% progressives vs. 47% conservatives). Qatar is the only country where more conservatives support both internet regulation and online freedom of speech (internet regulation: 72% conservatives vs. 54% progressives, freedom of speech: 62% conservatives vs. 54% progressives).

Support for both internet regulation and online freedom of expression increases with education. For example, only one-third of those with a primary education or less support freedom of speech online, compared to six in 10 of the university or more highly-educated (32% vs. 62%). And only one-third of those with a primary education support more online regulation, while two-thirds of university or more highly-educated respondents say the same (33% vs. 65%).

Men are slightly more likely to support online freedom of speech than women (57% vs. 51%); only in the UAE do more women than men support the right to express unpopular speech online (61% vs. 57%). Most young adults support online freedom of speech (62% of 18 to 24 year-olds), while support falls to 45% among those 45 and older. Western expatriates are far more likely than others to support freedom of expression online.

Most Egyptians and Qataris feel it is the responsibility of governments to block objectionable content, whereas majorities of Lebanese, Tunisians, and Emiratis believe individuals should be able to choose to avoid such content.

More women than men say governments should block objectionable content (51% women vs. 45% men); more men than women, however, say the choice should rest with individuals (50% men vs. 44% women). The youngest respondents (18-24) tend to prefer individual choice over government censorship (54% individual vs. 42% government), while those 45 and older prefer governments block objectionable content (54% government vs. 40% individual).

Support for individual autonomy in eschewing objectionable content increases with education, ranging from 39% among those with a primary education or less to 51% of university graduates. Support for governments to block undesirable content is stronger among those with a primary education or less than among the university or more highly-educated (53% vs. 45%).

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or proxy services can be used to enhance online privacy and may also afford access to content from other parts of the world. While only 7% of internet users use VPNs or proxy services, those who do are more likely to say individuals should be able to self-avoid objectionable entertainment content (59%) compared to 49% of those who do not use VPNs.

Majorities in all countries, except Tunisia, feel government oversight produces quality entertainment. Qataris report the most agreement (83%), while fewer than half of Tunisians agree (44%); however, more of both Egyptians and Tunisians in 2016 than in 2014 say government oversight improves entertainment. Saudis, and to some extent Emiratis, are less likely to agree with the statement in 2016 than in 2014.

One in three internet users worries about governments checking what they do online, a slight decline from 2013 and 2015. More Saudis than other nationals are worried about government surveillance (43%), while only one in five Emiratis say the same (22%).

However, the share of those expressing concerns about companies checking what they do online rose from about one-third in 2013 and 2015 to 42% in 2016. Approximately one-third of national internet users in Lebanon, Qatar, and the UAE worry about online corporate surveillance, compared to nearly half in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

More cultural progressives than conservatives report concern about online surveillance by both governments and companies. VPN users also express greater concern about online surveillance and perhaps use VPNs for an added level of privacy from surveillance.

Expatriates from outside the region express greater concern than Arabs about government surveillance of online activity, but the share of respondents expressing concern has fallen slightly among all national classifications, from 50% to 45% among Asian expatriates, 47% to 41% among Western expatriates, 36% to 32% among Arab expatriates, and from 37% to 31% among Arab nationals.