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How Western Companies Help Middle Eastern Governments Censor The Web

The recent unrest in the Middle East has once again highlighted the role of Western companies in aiding web censorship and filtering. Vodafone was heavily criticized for its role in aiding the Internet shutdown in Egypt. A subsidiary of Boeing, Narus, was reportedly involved with providing deep-packet-inspection technology to the Egyptian authorities.

A new Open Net Initiative (ONI) report, authored by Helmi Noman and Jillian C. York, looks at the "use of American- and Canadian-made software for the purpose of government-level filtering in the Middle East and North Africa."

The authors find that "nine countries in the region [Bahrain, U.A.E., Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia] utilize Western-made tools for the purpose of blocking social and political content, effectively blocking a total of over 20 million Internet users from accessing such websites."

Ostensibly much of the Western equipment is in place to protect citizens from pornography and other "undesirable" content, "such as websites that provide skeptical views of Islam, secular and atheist discourse, sex, GLBT, dating services" -- but it often ends up being used to filter opposition media or sites offering proxy and anonymity tools.

As the report's foreword warns: "If care were not taken, technologies to protect children using a handful of PCs could be readily repurposed to engage in mass political and other censorship affecting millions of people."

These companies not only provide the technology infrastructure but also provide ongoing access to lists that categorize millions of URLs for the purposes of filtering. Often pitched in the first instance for use by parents, schools, and workplaces, these technologies can also be sold to make filtering easy for entire countries: Once the underlying infrastructure is set up, the censors need only activate the tool and select the categories they wish to censor.

Miscategorization of content is common. For instance in Yemen, the ONI, a research institution, found that Websense, a U.S.-based filtering software, was blocking its website as it was categorized as a "Proxy Anonymizer." (Later it was recategorized as an "Educational Institution" and unblocked.) Also blocked was Jillian York's blog "after a post entitled 'Filtering Sex in the Arab World.'"

The report also noticed a change in the way the blocked content is being presented:

ISPs using commercial filters are increasingly obscuring that face as their citizens surf the Web and encounter blocks. A few years ago, the blockpages from many countries’ ISPs and their corresponding html source files had references to the commercial filters. Recent ONI research found that now more ISPs attempt to leave in their blockpages no attribution of the products in use.

At least in the Middle East the user gets a blockpage (an art form in themselves with their sinister function hidden behind infantilizing cartoons); in China, the user is often in the dark as to what the problem is, facing an error message or eternally loading page.

The report makes the good point that "little discussion has taken place in the public sphere on the use of Western technologies for government-level filtering."

While Websense has publicly stated that its software is not meant for use by governments, such use may be taking place, and other companies appear to have done little to curb the use of their tools-if not offering them outright for that purpose-for government-level censorship. These companies seem not to have adopted policies and procedures to safeguard freedom of expression in the event that states rather than parents and schools use their tools, as their products are being openly used by several state-run ISPs to limit what citizens can and cannot access online.

With U.S. policy emphasizing an open global Internet, and dollars being spent, through the State Department and the BBG (the oversight body responsible for international broadcasting entities like RFE/RL), it does seem a little odd that U.S. companies are, in effect, working against that policy. Indirectly, the United States is paying for proxies and anonymizing tools to help global citizens get around firewalls that its companies have had a hand in constructing.

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