Facebook may be too popular

Social networking websites are popular in the UAE, but some users fear internet regulators may restrict access.

Computer hacker turned author Kevin Mitnick poses for a portrait Thursday, June 27, 2002, in Las Vegas. Barred  by the terms of his probation from messing with computers, ex-convict hacker Kevin Mitnick has turmed to writing about them, baring the tricks of his former trade in a forthcoming book,  "The Art of Deception."  Mitnick has been given permission to use a computer to write his  book. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta)
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ABU DHABI // Facebook and other social networking websites are enjoying overwhelming popularity in the Emirates, but some users fear internet regulators may further restrict access to "objectionable content". A new study shows that people in the UAE are more likely to sign up for social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace than people in other parts of the world, including North America.

The survey, in which more than 13,000 people across 17 countries were questioned, found that 46 per cent of the respondents in the UAE were active members of online social networks, compared with 40 per cent of those asked in the US and 44 per cent in Canada. The global market research firm, Synovate, which has an office in Dubai, spoke to more than 650 people across the Emirates aged 18 to 65. Only the Netherlands recorded a higher proportion of social networking members, with 49 per cent saying they used the sites.

Facebook subscribers keep in touch with friends, post information on forums and share images on the site, allowing some to access sections of the site such as dating forums despite the filtering technology used by UAE internet providers Etisalat and du to block politically or culturally "objectionable" internet content. Some users of the site - the seventh most visited in the UAE, according to the website tracker Alexa - have said they fear Facebook may soon meet the fate of other social networking web applications such as Orkut. There are at least a dozen online "petitions" against blocking Facebook. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) blocked Google-owned Orkut in its entirety in July 2007 after receiving reports that users were exchanging sexually explicit material. It also has blocked parts of the popular image-sharing sites YouTube and Flickr, which were the UAE's fourth and 28th most popular websites, respectively, according to Alexa. A spokesman for the TRA said the agency was not considering blocking Facebook in its entirety, but added that policies regarding the site may change if the current censorship regime does not adequately block questionable content.

"Facebook provides numerous services and contains diverse types of information, mostly useful," the spokesman wrote in an email. Etisalat and du "will block only those sections/services which are against the policies. Should the majority of content become against the policies and there is no way to block the prohibited content then the licensees may block the whole website." Etisalat declined to comment. A spokeswoman for du said the company had blocked only "pages/groups on Facebook which are not in line with the moral, social and cultural values of the United Arab Emirates". Several Facebook users said they understood concerns about the site and its inappropriate material, but added that further restrictions would not be popular. Last year, Etisalat placed a full block on Facebook after its filtering software, which uses search algorithms to block sites automatically based on guidelines provided by the TRA, stumbled on objectionable words, such as "dating". The TRA was flooded with email complaints and Etisalat rushed to unblock the site. The TRA spokesman said, however, that a site's popularity has no bearing on whether or not it will be blocked. "From a policy point of view, popularity is irrelevant when considering blocking/unblocking decisions," he wrote. "However, popularity may impact how fast actions are taken. Popularity means more attention from customers' point of view." George Christodoulides, the managing director for Synovate Gulf, said Facebook's popularity in the UAE was not surprising, considering the transient nature of the population. He said online networking opened up possibilities for meeting people "in a society where traditionally men and women don't always mix freely". Sam, 21, who grew up in Dubai and runs the blog One Big Construction Site, agreed. "I met my girlfriend through Facebook," he said. "I had her on my Facebook two years ago and I didn't know who she was then." He added that despite bans on some networking sites - such as Flickr and Orkut - men and women in the UAE had found ways to circumvent the censors and socialise online before meeting in person. mkwong@thenational.ae mbradley@thenational.ae