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London, 6 July: Kuwaiti businessman Thunayan Khalid al-Ghanim (also known online as Elequa) is one of the foremost internet developers in the world.
Over the past decade his British Virgin Islands-based company Future Media Architects (FMA) has built up a portfolio of some 120,000 domain names, valued at over $3 billion. His top names include media.com, MultiMedia.com and Music.TV. And unlike most other internet investors seeking to profit from domain names, FMA is known for its rigid policy of refusing to sell the names it owns.
In London I caught up with Thunayan, an artist and sculptor before he turned internet entrepreneur, to ask him about the latest phase of his varied career - as a champion of free expression online in the Arab world.
As the Middle East and North Africa are convulsed by the fastest-moving period of revolutionary change in 60 years, Thunayan has launched Arabs.com, a website in Arabic and English that he intends to develop into a major online political forum.
As well as a general discussion area, the site has separate sections including women's rights, cultural affairs, an archive project collating historical political transcripts, and a section called Transparency, "for whistleblowers to expose scandals and secret files". Bloggers can also post their own articles or opinion pieces in a separate area.
"Arabs.com is a forum for Arabs by Arabs - and anyone around the world who is interested in Arab issues - from every segment of society, without bias or preference for one voice over another, to create their reality without censorship or guardianship, where each person is responsible for their exercise of free choice and expression," he explained. No Political Ambitions
The launch of Arabs.com signifies "recognition of the power of the new citizen journalist generation", Thunayan said. It is a site committed to providing "a zone free of censorship for civil objective dialogue that excludes no one."
The site describes itself as "a platform for Middle East voices and those interested in and knowledgeable about the region". But it does not represent or support any political or religious group or party, and he has no personal political ambitions, the 41-year-old international "domain artist" insisted.
"I come from a long family lineage of historical political leaders and oppositionists, though I’m not a politician myself and have no ambitions of being one," Thunayan said. "My family background ingrained in me early awareness of the condition of the world we live in and a concern with its issues, probably earlier than a child should have. I have encountered and inherited injustices in my life, and it’s through those trials that my belief in the human spirit and the value of freedom and truth has developed." Social Media And The Arab Spring
Commenting on the part played by social media and citizen journalists in the Arab Spring, Thunayan agreed that social media were useful tools, but there had to be old-fashioned political organizing and grass-roots activism to begin with.
"History is not made by super-powers of heaven or earth, it’s human-made through the collective exercise of humanity expressing itself freely. The Arab Spring is a case of little brother taking over big brother, a David and Goliath scenario if you like, where too many little people are moving at once too fast for the organized power to control the power of organized chaos," he argued.
Thunayan believes that the tools of social media - including Facebook, Twitter and blogs - are replacing the traditional broadcast media because of what he calls their "instancy": "Television and radio, for those with access to the internet, have become archaic in my point of view, maybe good for entertainment, and even decreasingly at that. Books on the other hand could be served by the fact that most of the internet is the written word, and books being word-based media - I think the book as a concept will survive, as long as the format changes. The book industry should accept the progress of the digital evolution of the word."Arab Governments And The Internet
"I believe in the free flow of information," said Thunayan, who was scathing about the attempts of Arab governments to regulate the internet and online media. "Regulatory bodies in the Arab world don't know how to use the filters that they buy. Quite legitimate discussion sites could be blocked, for example, if they contain words such as 'adult' or 'sexism'," he added. "They should restrain themselves rather than absurdly trying to restrain the internet. "
As for the old and discredited state-run newspapers and TV stations across the Arab world, he predicted that their days were nearly over. "They're becoming obsolete. They won't give up, but they're living in their own dimension.""Pivotal Point in History"
Awareness of Arabs.com is spreading by word of mouth, without publicity, and it is attracting citizen journalists, according to Thunayan.
"The site started with 10,000 visitors a day… We have started a Twitter page to engage with people and invite them to comment…We are mostly republishing at the moment, and have started producing original content. We are targeting writers to give us exclusives and hope in turn to give them an excellent audience… The only thing we won't allow on the site is hate," he said.
Although the launch of Arabs.com coincided with the rise of the Arab Spring, it was not a spur of the moment decision, Thunayan added.
"It has been a long time in the making, of accumulating credible sources, documents and information. It’s not meant to be nothing more that an outlet for a current outburst, as is the case of what I call 'shout-out websites'. It's here for the long haul, with conviction, determination and focus."
The uprisings of the Arab people were not constrictively Arab but an uprising of humanity, he concluded. "My message to those interested and even to those not so interested is to take notice that we are at a pivotal point in history."
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