A Massive Blocking Campaign in Yemen Results in a Nationwide Utilization of Circumvention Methods  

7 juin, 2016

Since the start of the ongoing civil unrest in Yemen in March 2015, there have been radical changes regarding how the Internet is governed. Certain political actors have imposed their hegemony and thus brought terrible consequences and restrictions to online freedom of expression and the Internet as a whole, which has consequently led to a grave deterioration of liberties in a country that had witnessed a great deal of openness after the toppling of Ali Saleh’s regime in 2011.

One of the manifestations of the fierce campaign that has arbitrarily clamped down on liberties and restricted online activities was the mass blocking of websites of local and foreign news agencies or any content that was explicitly in contrast or perceived to be somewhat in opposition to the agendas of the “Ansarullah” movement (also called the Houthi group) that has been forcibly in control of the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a since late 2014, in an attempt to repressively silence public opinion and prevent exposure to any content that opposes their political will and may constitute a threat to their interests.

The use of circumvention methods in Yemen prior to the start of the crisis was not popular among the masses of Internet users – since Internet use was not as widespread and most users were largely confined to social media networks and a small number of popular websites – but they have gained tremendous popularity after the mass blocking campaign carried out by the Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology that operates under the command of the Houthi group.

The blocking campaign has prompted civil society actors and other experts in the technical sphere to propagate the utilization of circumvention methods on a larger scale and supplied the populace with guidelines explaining the available options, installation information, and other operational information. Nowadays, a vast majority of avid Internet users in Yemen, including those with very basic knowledge of the Internet, utilize a variety of circumvention applications to enable them access to blocked websites and other features on the web, among which are Psiphon, Hotspot Shield, Cloud VPN, and browsers such as Baidu.

Surprisingly, a number of popular social media platforms remained operational in Yemen, even during the critical times the country is experiencing. There had been several rumors that the Houthi group is intent on banning such platforms due to the threat they constitute, but nevertheless, these rumors were never translated into actions and as a result, Facebook and Twitter have been massively accessed by Internet users to document the current crisis on a daily basis by journalists and activists.

Among the social media platforms that were banned in Yemen are Instagram and Telegram. The reasons for blocking Instagram remain unknown, while it is reported that the primary motive behind banning Telegram is that the app’s owners took down the Houthi’s channel for not complying with their policies and as a result the Ministry of Telecommunication imposed a nationwide ban on the app.

Yemen still struggles with a great number of other issues that mainly pertain to the communication infrastructure, which has been neglected for decades due to corrupt deals and with the absolute absence of a real governmental will to integrate Yemen with its other developed peers in the region. This is added to by the persistent state of instability that has had a negative impact on the already fragile infrastructure and wasted millions of dollars repairing damages rather than updating the network or finding real solutions for the most pressing issues in the communication sector.
Ahmed Saeed (Yemen) is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Stout and an independent activist and public policy analyst. He is majoring in software engineering. Ahmed was selected as a fellow to represent civil society from the MENA region at the third edition of the regional Arab Internet Governance Forum in December 2015.