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Kuwaitis Are Facing a Conflict Between Morality and Freedom

As the number of Internet users soars, some want government to censor the Web. Others say a ban would violate the constitution.

February 03, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — The 30,000 square feet of leading-edge computer technology on display featured Gateway's cow booth, Palm Pilot's "cool, capable, connected" exhibit, a dizzying array of Compaqs, Packard Bells and Acers, and even the Koran on CD-ROM in six languages.

But in a hall filled this week with Arab rock music, giant Showtime screens and well-heeled consumers, Kuwait's two privately owned Internet service providers were among the biggest draws here at the Info-Connect 2001 Expo.

And that is precisely what worries a powerful bloc of Islamic fundamentalists, conservative politicians and parents in this wealthy and worldly little corner of the Persian Gulf.

"The Internet has taken off in Kuwait, and it's a culture shock to everybody," said Rashid Abdulla, managing director of Qualitynet, Kuwait's larger Internet service provider. "There's no doubt there is a cultural and a religious concern."

Indeed, in this society where most women wear black robes that hide all but their eyes, alcohol is forbidden and sex is a word unspoken, parents, politicians and even Kuwait's royal family are wrestling with the Web's fast-growing reach.

In the past two years, the number of Kuwaiti users of this unbridled virtual world, where nudity and gambling are a mouse-click away, has more than doubled to over 100,000, according to industry sources. They estimate that this oil-rich state of 2.2 million people has more than 300 Internet cafes packed nightly with curious and long-sheltered young surfers. In 1997, there was only one.

The government appointed by Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah so far has resisted calls by fundamentalists in the elected parliament to order servers to censor the Net.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia and the nearby Persian Gulf states of Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where the servers are owned or controlled by the government, contract with U.S.-based software companies to block adult and gambling sites. But some Kuwaiti officials maintain that such a ban would violate constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Still, Qualitynet used the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in 1999 to announce that it would begin to unilaterally block all adult sites--a decision Abdulla said cost the company millions of dollars in new equipment.

"For the first month or so, our revenue did go down," said Abdulla, a Bahraini. "We lost a lot of people who wanted pornography. But we picked up a lot of people who were concerned about their kids."

Clearly, chief competitor Kuwait Electronic Messaging Services, or KEMS, also benefited. It did not block sites--and will not, unless ordered to by the government, according to network operations manager Joe Anthony, who said many cafes have switched to KEMS to draw liberal youths who are blocked from sites at home.

KEMS, which has a 50-50 revenue-sharing agreement with the government, was Kuwait's first Internet provider. It was launched by an American company soon after the U.S.-led liberation of this nation from Iraqi occupation 10 years ago. Now it is owned by Saudi business interests, Anthony said.

The Web initially was used in Kuwait as an academic tool, he said. Now it is tapped extensively by business and government, along with consumers who primarily log on for "chatting" and other entertainment.

"Personally, I feel you shouldn't block the people," said Anthony, a Kuwaiti-born Indian. "You just make them more eager to go to those sites."

But a former state oil company professional surveying Qualitynet's new direct-service-line offers at one of the Expo's 96 booths disagreed.

"You want people to benefit from the technology, not to abuse it," said Fahad Qahtani, who uses the Internet to trade on the NASDAQ. "And we know many of our kids are going to the Internet cafes where these sites are not blocked.

"I believe these sites should not be available for the youngsters, nor even for the adults, because, as we know, there are many adults who act like children."

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