Compared to their Gulf peers, Qataris are the least concerned about online snooping by governments and private companies, a new regional study has found.
And nearly two-thirds of citizens would favor tighter internet regulation, initial results from this year’s edition of NorthWestern University in Qatar’s annual survey of media use in Arab states shows.
Only one third (32 percent) of Qataris said they were concerned about the government monitoring their online activity, while more than half (57 percent) said they were not worried about state surveillance.
Experts said this could be due to the government’s more relaxed approach to online debate, compared to its regional neighbors.
Some 6,058 people from Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia were interviewed between Dec. 20, 2015 and Feb. 27 this year for the latest version of the survey, Media Use in the Middle East.
Qatar had the largest percentage of nationals who voiced no concern about government monitoring.
The country was followed by the UAE, with 52 percent saying they were not worried. In Saudi Arabia, 43 percent of nationals said they were concerned by the phenomenon and around one third (35 percent) had no issue with it.
Compared to last year’s study, online surveillance appears to becoming less of an issue for nationals in Qatar.
Figures from the 2015 report showed that 43 percent of Qataris said they were worried about the government checking what they do online – 11 percent more than this year.
NUQ’s dean and CEO Everette Dennis disclosed some of the results from this year’s survey during a panel discussion at the International Press Institute’s (IPI) World Congress this week.
The full report, which looks at usage and attitudes towards media in Arab states, was conducted by Harris Poll for NU-Q and the Doha Film Institute (DFI), and is set to be released next month.
According to survey, Qataris are slightly more concerned about private companies monitoring their usage, than they are about the government doing so.
But more than half (53 percent) of Qataris interviewed said they had no concerns about this, compared to 28 percent in Saudi Arabia and 15 percent of Tunisians.
Reflecting this apparent lack of concern, Qatar nationals were also the least likely to change their social media usage due to privacy concerns.
Less than half (46 percent) said they would, compared to 89 percent of Saudi nationals, three-quarters of Egyptians and two-thirds of Emirati citizens.
Qatar was among five of the six countries featured in the survey where a majority of citizens said they thought the internet in their home country should be more tightly regulated than it is currently.
More than six in every 10 Qataris (62 percent) agreed with this view, compared to nearly seven in 10 Lebanese (68 percent) but just 39 percent of Tunisians.
While a detailed explanation for these preliminary figures hasn’t yet been released, last year’s edition of the report linked concerns about government surveillance of online activity to support for citizens’ freedom of speech and political efficacy.
“Those who feel the internet offers political empowerment tend to worry about governments checking their online activities, as are those who want more internet regulation,” the 2015 report said.
Meanwhile, the 2014 report “Entertainment Media in the Middle East: A Six-Nation Survey,” by NU-Q and DFI found overwhelming support for government oversight of online content, especially violent or explicit material.
Dr. Justin Martin, assistant journalism professor at NU-Q, told Doha News that one explanation for the relatively low level of concern by Qatar nationals for online surveillance could be due to fewer reported cases of people being imprisoned for critical opinions online, compared to other states in the region.
“In Qatar, unlike the UAE and Egypt, you don’t have a wealth of examples of Qataris being imprisoned for online speech. The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have dissidents who are visibly and harshly penalized for online speech.
In Qatar, there aren’t groups of journalists being locked up for tweeting criticism of the government, as there is in the UAE or Egypt,” he said.
Still, commentators have previously highlighted a degree of self-censorship that exists here, particularly among some media organizations.
Censorship does exist in Qatar, although few there are few public details of how authorities do this, beyond an automated censorship tool that blocks websites deemed to contain obscene content
Information revealed by WikLeaks in 2014 revealed that Qatar’s State Security Bureau had spent QR3.2 million from October 2010 until April 2014 as a customer of German technology firm FinFisher, which makes “spyware” software which can be used to secretly monitor emails and other forms of online communication.
The extent to which Qatar uses software developed by FinFisher – which says its products are for “targeted and lawful criminal investigation” purposes only – to monitor residents is not clear.
Meanwhile, following the introduction of Qatar’s cyber crime law in September 2014, the Ministry of Interior last year reminded residents that insulting people online, even if as a joke, is a criminal offense.
However, this law focuses primarily on criticisms of individuals, rather than the state itself.
In one of Qatar’s most high-profile cases, poet Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami was jailed for “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir,” and convicted in 2012. He was recently released following an Emiri pardon.