Qatar’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ictQATAR) published a new full length study on the attitudes and behaviours of internet users in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
The 20,000 word study benchmarks the experience of the online population in the region against global users in five key areas: access to technology, attitudes towards the internet, levels of concern, trust in online actors, and user behaviours—demonstrating in the process that, despite clear cultural considerations, MENA is not an outlier.
In fact, compared to their global counterparts, online users in the Middle East are among the most enthusiastic commentators about the positive impact that the internet has on their lives.
Middle Eastern internet users also lead the way in terms of technology adoption, becoming early proponents of technologies such as VoIP, and they enjoy some of the highest levels of satellite television adoption anywhere in the world. With many of the same homes reporting that they have active cable packages, too, the continued importance of television as a mass medium in this region is reflected in this region.
While the region trails in terms of eCommerce take-up and online banking (where it ranks lowest in the world), MENA respondents rank banks and financial institutions as the online players they trust the most. These trust levels potentially offer a strong foundation for growing eCommerce and eBanking usage in the coming years.
Although the Middle East is a surprisingly diverse and large region (to give you a sense of scale, it takes longer to fly from Doha to Casablanca than it does to Moscow or London), attitudes across the region were surprisingly homogeneous –across both our North Africa and GCC (Gulf) samples – and when mapped against global averages. Internet users across the globe, for example, displayed very similar levels of concern towards safety issues such as having their email or online accounts hacked.
Nevertheless, some differences do exist.
Users in emerging internet economies such as the Middle East are more frequent users of tools related to online creative expression, such as blogging, than their counterparts in areas where the internet is more established. These findings may be a reflection of the political environments associated with many emerging online economies, or it could be that these behaviours diminish in value to online communities as users migrate towards adopting more advanced online services and behaviours. This is one of the many emerging conclusions from this study that may merit further exploration.
Perhaps most notably, when mapped against the world average, internet users in the Middle East were considerably more supportive of the idea that government authorities should block harmful content online that is racist, discriminatory, or potentially damaging to children.
This discovery presents some interesting policy challenges.
On her blog, American journalist and freedom of expression advocate Courtney Radsch argued: “These attitudes imply the potential for acquiescence to censorship and blocking that could in fact restrict free speech, as in the Middle East officials too often use the cover of such harmful content laws to crack down on dissent or legitimate public discourse.”
This report takes a different perspective, finding that these attitudes present some interesting challenges in terms of promoting media literacy and safe online behaviours in the region, with internet users potentially seeking to absolve themselves of parental responsibilities and self-regulation by handing these responsibilities to their respective governments.
As a result, the report recommendations argued that this was an area which needed to be explored in more detail. Specifically, the report stated: “Probing how users want Government authorities to address these issues could yield some useful, and potentially actionable, insights…. [in particular we need] to understand the extent to which users are aware of current activities undertaken by Government agencies and ISPs in this space; and whether these efforts need to be communicated more effectively, or in different ways, to end users.”
This media literacy element also manifests itself in inconsistencies between claimed versus actual behaviours. Nearly fifty percent of online users in the Middle East claimed to be ‘very careful’ online, yet compared to other regions, MENA’s internet users are among the most likely to open emails and attachments from unknown senders. They were among the least likely to scan their computer or mobile for viruses or spyware. That said, they were amount the most likely to check their privacy settings on a regular basis.
These apparent contradictions are not unique to the MENA region. They reflect the continued importance of the work that is done by civil society and other online actors to help educate and empower internet users to have safe, useful, and enjoyable web experiences.
As the world moves into an era of increased connectivity—from the continued global take-up of smartphones, through to mainstreaming of machine to machine communication and the ‘Internet of Things’—the need for media literacy and internet education are only likely to increase. The need for ongoing research in this space to inform media law, policy, and practice will be essential. This study provides a useful foundation to begin such research regarding the Middle East.
Published in collaboration with The World Bank
Author: The Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) is a leader in international education and training in comparative media law and policy.
Image: A woman uses an iMac computer in a shop at a mobile and computer shopping complex in northern Tehran January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi