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Oman: everyday Internet life in the police state

No Skype, no Islam criticism, no porn – those who do not pursue special interests surf the Omani Internet relatively undisturbed. Because instead of relying on rigorous censorship as in Iran, the Arab state is monitoring all Internet activities throughout the country.

“Search it all”, it shouts in the typical Google colours and fonts from the billboards in Oman’s capital Muscat. The state-owned Internet provider Omantel thus advertises “unlimited knowledge” via broadband connection and wants 20 rials (approx. 50 euros) per month for it. “Anyone who wants the Internet and has a computer can afford that,” says a taxi driver. According to Internet World Stats, 57 percent of the population is online – a share that can compete with those of other oil-rich states on the Arabian peninsula such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Kuwait. Most of the country’s inhabitants no longer need to walk into the hidden Internet cafés with their dusty surf berths, rattling fans and rickety keyboards.

Even if Oman is not on the list of Internet enemies that the organization “Reporters Without Borders” publishes annually and presents itself as a kind of “Switzerland of the Arab World” – Internet censorship and surveillance are on the agenda in the country ruled by Sultan Qabus ibn Sa`id in an authoritarian manner (even if more subtly than elsewhere) – there can be no question of “search it all” here.

Skype ban as tip of the iceberg

As one of the more than one million tourists per year in Oman, you hardly need to worry about internet access. Numerous hotels and cafés are equipped with WLAN, and Omantel is already planning to set up an LTE network for the ever-increasing number of smartphone users in the country. When surfing superficially, you hardly notice the censorship – holiday greetings via e-mail, photos on Facebook, a tweet from the beach, no problem at all. You reach the first limit with Skype: “This site has been blocked due to content that is contrary to the societal and cultural norms of the sultanat”, says the website to which Skype.com redirects you. But the social and cultural reasons for the block are probably only half the truth: Skype is considered by activists all over the world to be a popular means of communication – because it is for the most part tap-proof.

Even completely different desires than VoIP telephony cannot be satisfied on the Omani Internet: instead of YouPorn, Pornhub or Tube8 you get a blockade note on your screen – with the hint that the websites violate cultural and social norms, but that you have the possibility to lodge a complaint against the blockade via e-mail. And when it comes to what has been done, Omani web censorship knows no quarter: Islam-critical websites like www.prophetofdoom.net or www.freemuslim.org are just as inaccessible as the homosexual communities www.gaywired.com and www.gayromeo.com. Moreover, according to the Open Net Initiative, blockades of anonymization services such as Proxify or Anonymizer have repeatedly taken place.

A minimized taboo topic

In Oman, people don’t talk about control and censorship on the Internet on tape. However, in the background discussion at the Muskater Information Ministry, the position of the Arab state, which regards itself as “very liberal” in comparison to other Arab states, is at least explained. “Anyone can use the Internet, but it’s not a free buffet,” said a high-ranking official. The filtering of certain contents would have above all educational and moral reasons, so that “the youth does not deviate from the right way”.

The comprehensive monitoring of Internet content is not denied either. “Yes, it is being monitored to prevent anyone from doing anything bad. Then follows a comparative reference to European conditions (keyword data retention) and the argument of improved crime prevention.

According to the US Department of State, all private communications (mobile phones, e-mail, chats) in Oman are monitored using Internet monitoring and blocking technologies from the West. According to the Open Net Initiative, “SmartFilter” from McAfee (owned by Intel since 2010) is used, the software offers filters for more than 35 million websites. According to the Wall Street Journal, other tools come from the US company Narus Inc. (owned by Boeing) and Bitek International Inc. as well as the German company Ipoque GmbH.

Wide use of monitoring technologies

“Oman is still a police state,” says a high-ranking European diplomat who does not want to be named. Since the Arab Spring at the latest – protests in Oman claimed two lives – the government has been on increased alert and has intensified surveillance on the Internet behind the scenes.

Acquisitions of new surveillance technologies, discovered by TAZ in December, complete the picture: Munich-based Gamma International GmbH and its Swiss partner Dreamlab Technologies AG have sold products from the FinFisher series to Oman. These products allow computers to be infected with spyware on a massive scale via fake updates of programs such as iTunes or Adobe Flash Player, thus enabling large population groups to be spyed on.

Whether in a hotel WLAN, in an Internet café or on a smartphone, anyone visiting or living in Oman must expect complete monitoring of their Internet activities. It is uncertain whether the broad mass of the hidden control is aware – however, certain basic rules of the state have probably internalized most of them – Internet back or forth: Criticism of the head of state and other central personalities is just as forbidden as all calls to civil disobedience and actions that endanger the security of the state.