Opening Digital Borders Cautiously yet Decisively: Digital Filtering in Saudi Arabia


Fatemah Alharbi, Taibah University, Yanbu; Michalis Faloutsos and Nael Abu-Ghazaleh, University of California, Riverside


Our study makes a rare positive observation: Saudi Arabia has been opening its digital borders since 2017 in a deliberate new era towards openness. In this paper, we present a comprehensive longitudinal study of digital filtering, which we define to include both mobile apps and website access, in Saudi Arabia over a period of three years. Our results show that Saudi Arabia has indeed made significant progress towards opening its digital borders: (a) the use of mobile applications has been significantly permitted; and (2) web access is becoming more open. We use: (a) 18 social media and communications mobile apps such as WhatsApp, Facetime, and Skype; and (b) Alexa’s top 500 websites in 18 different categories. For mobile app access, our mobile app group was completely blocked in 2017, but access was permitted to 67% in 2018, 93% in 2019, and all, except WeChat, in 2020. For web access, we find that Internet filtering decreased by 3.4% and 2.2% in Adult and Shopping, respectively, which are the most two blocked categories. Finally, we examine how digital filtering reflects the wider geopolitical events, such as the blocking of ISIS-friendly sites in 2020 and news sites from Qatar, Iran, and Turkey in 2017, 2018, and 2020, respectively, due to diplomatic tensions.

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@inproceedings {257174,
author = {Fatemah Alharbi and Michalis Faloutsos and Nael Abu-Ghazaleh},
title = {Opening Digital Borders Cautiously yet Decisively: Digital Filtering in Saudi Arabia},
booktitle = {10th USENIX Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI 20)},
year = {2020},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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