Feb. 17, 2011 at 5:06 PM ET
Bahrain's a small country with a large Internet population, and it hasn't hesitated before to smack down websites or bloggers it doesn't like, long before this week's protests began. Internet service, though, had remained somewhat constant, at least until recent days, according to reports.
Bahranian users of Batelco’s high-speed Internet service, one of the more prominent in the country, said they were starting to notice “service degradation” as of Wednesday.
"The telecoms operator did not specify what caused the disruption, but many believe it is the direct action of the government to curtail the widespread and growing movement against peaceful demonstrators. The government has not spoken to the issue,” reported the Middle Eastern blog, Bikya Masr.
"We appreciate our customers’ cooperation and understanding while we strive to restore full services, which we hope to do as soon as possible," Batelco said in an e-mail to news organizations.
Meanwhile, Arbor Networks, a Massachusetts supplier of anti-denial-of-service technology, told ComputerWorld Thursday that the amount of data going in and out of Bahrain this week is down about 20 percent compared to traffic of the past three weeks.
"Data from 100 Internet providers around the world suggests Bahrain has significantly increased its filtering of Internet traffic in response to growing political unrest," the company told the publication.
Bahrain had 419,500 Internet users as of 2009, according to the CIA World Factbook, with nearly half of them having high-speed, or broadband, Internet connections.
The country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said as of the third quarter last year, 188,000 of the Bahrain’s Internet subscribers had broadband service, and Bahrain’s "Internet ecosystem is the 92nd largest in the world, despite serving a population of less than 1 million people," said Internet monitoring firm Renesys, in a recent report.
The Bahranian government has not been hesitant in recent months to take severe —and chilling — action when it comes to the websites or bloggers it doesn’t like or want viewed by the public.
Last fall, authorities ordered two news websites, Bahrain Breaking News and the Muhannad Group, "to stop operations in the Kingdom," according to ITP.net, which describes itself as the "Middle East’s leading technology site."
"The sites, which include a BlackBerry news service, were ordered to stop publishing news as they are not licensed by Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority (IAA) to act as press offices," ITP.net said. And the government agency said it would continue to block sites in the future that it considered responsible for spreading unrest.
"We will spare no efforts in taking legal actions against these websites, should they continue flouting rules and regulations," according to an IAA statement shared in the news story. "These dubious websites will never succeed in these heinous designs. No one, whoever he is, will compromise Bahrain's bright image. These sites have been blocking for diffusing controversial articles jeopardizing national unity and fuelling sectarianism."
ITP.net noted that “the crackdown is part of an ongoing campaign in Bahrain,” and that in September, “the founder of popular forum BahrainOnline.org, Ali Abdulemam, (was) arrested by the National Security Agency.”
Blogger Fahad Desmukh, writing last fall in Foreign Policy magazine, said that in 2006, he was "interrogated by the National Security Agency for activities seemingly connected to my blog, after which I was put on a blacklist and banned from entering Bahrain again." He now blogs from Karachi in Pakistan.
In the magazine article, he wrote that:
The Internet has been a crucial site for political life in Bahrain for many years. During the pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain of the 1990's, information in the country was controlled entirely by the regime. The only radio and television stations were owned by the state (as continues to be the case today), while self-censorship was the norm in the nominally-independent press. Despite the civil unrest on the streets, there was no reporting on it, or any local politics, beyond public statements released by the government. The arrival of the Internet though created a breach in the state's control of information.
... Users on the online forums are not just commenting on news from the traditional media, but are constantly generating news from their own sources, and online activism in Bahrain actually translates in to activism on the street. (The Arabic term "abtal al-keyboard," literally "keyboard heroes," is used to disparagingly describe those online users who post angry messages but fail to show up street protests).
Concluded Desmukh: The "Internet alone will by no means bring down any government. But the continued repression of discussion on the Internet may certainly exacerbate the desire for change."
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