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The website of Abiding Faith Lutheran Church of Fort Worth, Texas, has little content on it other than a list of service times, directions, and a brief statement of faith. Nevertheless, the government of Saudi Arabia has prohibited its citizens from viewing the page.

"The intention wasn't to set it out there to do any type of forced infiltration to any nation," says the church's pastor, Tom Bauer. "This is odd. I never realized our website had any reason for contact over in Saudi Arabia."

For two weeks in May, researchers from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society surfed the Web using Saudi Arabia's servers to simulate Internet use in the country. The purpose was to identify specific Web pages blocked by the government's Internet Services Unit (ISU). The results show that the nation filters sites about religion, politics, women, health, pop culture, and more.

"A look at the list beyond sexually explicit content yields some insight into the particular areas the Saudi government appears to find most sensitive," the report says. "The Saudi government maintains an active interest in filtering non-sexually explicit Web content for users within the kingdom."

According to the ISU, 95 percent of sites it blocks are pornography. Other objectionable content, it says, includes that related to drugs, weapons, or criticism of Islam. The official site says the ISU "oversees and implements the filtration of Web pages in order to block those pages of an offensive or harmful nature to the society, and which violate the tenets of the Islamic religion or societal norms."

With the cooperation of the Saudi government, Harvard researchers attempted to access 64,000 Web addresses and compiled a list of 2,038 restricted sites.

Virginia Sherry, ...

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August 2002

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