When the question, ‘Who owns the Internet’ is asked, the usual reply is either ‘nobody’ or ‘everybody’. Arab Media & Society publishes a research paper [20-page PDF] that suggests those answers aren’t quite right when it comes to the Internet in Arab countries.
Internet access came to the Arab world over a period of years. The table below is taken from the paper.
1993 Egypt, Algeria, UAE, Kuwait
1995 Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco
1997 Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria
Over that period, and since, there has been competition, both within and among countries, over the ownership of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), through whose facilities people access the Internet. Reasons for ownership are multiple, ranging from simple profit-making to control of content for political, religious, and/or social ends. There is power in ownership that can be translated into political power. The political power can be extended through the fact that ISPs also have identifying information about who is providing and who is accessing information that flows through their channels; how they access it; and at what price.
The paper concludes, though, that there is, at present, no monopoly ownership of the Arab Internet, with the possible exceptions of Syria—which does maintain total control over Internet—and Bahrain, whose BATELCO phone company utterly dominates the scene. For other countries, there are widespread and often interlocking relationships with other countries in the Arab world and with some European countries. Not too surprisingly, France is the leader here, though Italy and Britain play smaller roles. Most surprising to me, is that Russia is beginning to insert itself into the Arab Internet. Somewhat less surprising, though still remarkable to me, is that this research showed no Iranian ownership patterns. I assume this could be a matter of state policy, but suspect that direct cash infusions into political entities such as Hezbollah account for at least some influence, if not direct ownership.
All in all, I think the paper and interesting one, worth taking the time to read.
Ruling the Arab Internet:
An Analysis of Internet Ownership Trends of Six Arab Countries
Michael J. Oghia3 and Helen Indelicato
This body of research focused on answering the questions, “who owns Arab Internet media?” and “what are the implications of this ownership?” Grounding our theoretical framework within the Agenda–Setting Theory of McComb & Shaw (1972), we conducted a critical empirical analysis scrutinizing major Internet service provider websites from six Arab countries: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and looked specifically for trends such as monopolies, oligarchies, and investment in telecommunications companies by foreign and regional entities. Our results indicated that the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are highly invested in Arab telecommunications. Furthermore, there is a strong economic and political link between Egypt, the U.A.E., Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and an interconnection exists between companies from these countries. Other Arab countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain are also investing in regional ISPs. There is limited investment from outside the region, but Orange Telecom (the commercial brand of France Telecom) dominates this foreign investment. The results also indicate that although there are no monopolies (with the partial exceptions of Bahrain and Syria), there are emerging oligopolies of Arab Internet media, specifically growing individually out of each of the countries we examined. Implications for these results indicate that inter–country oligopolies may potentially develop as more regional investors take control of Internet companies, and as more connections are made (such as with the Hariri family or other political and economic leaders, Saudi Oger, the Saudi Telecom Company, and the connection between Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), more influence on control and regulation—as well as what is regulated and controlled—will be exerted.