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The booming business of Internet censorship

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McAfee corp, purchased last year by Intel, is one of many companies building website-blocking software [EPA]by Jillian C. York

Throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa, online censorship is the norm.

The level of censorship varies; in Morocco, only a handful of sites relating to the Western Sahara, Google Earth, and Livejournal are deemed offencive enough to ban, while other countries – like Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria – filter the internet pervasively, banning political sites as well as social content.

Though the filtering itself is conducted by the governments of each country, it is made possible by technology imported mainly from the United States and Canada. 

A new report from the OpenNet Initiative, which I authored with my colleague Helmi Noman, outlines the various countries in the region utilising these tools: In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Sudan, and Kuwait, the censors prefer McAfee's SmartFilter technology.

In Yemen, until recently, Websense was the software of choice; the government has since switched to Canadian-built Netsweeper, also used by Qatar and the UAE.

Tunisia has used SmartFilter in the past, but has recently loosened up on its internet controls.

Tools like Websense, SmartFilter, and Netsweeper – as well as Cisco, a favourite of China – make it easier for government censors to do their jobs.

Rather than blocking URLs individually, they can check a single category (like pornography, drugs, or provocative attire) and block thousands of sites in one fell swoop.

Unsurprisingly, the categorisation system is imperfect, sometimes causing innocuous sites to get caught in the mix.

The OpenNet Initiative's website, as well as my own, were both blocked by the government of Yemen which at the time used Websense (it has since switched to Netsweeper), allegedly for containing pornography. 

Neither site contained pornographic material, and when pressed, Websense admitted that sites with significant amounts of spam containing outlinks to porn sites – such as comments left by third-party spammers – can cause a site to be erroneously categorised.

Problematically, this system means that, by throwing up a few blog comments with links to offencive content, virtually anyone can manipulate these systems to get content blocked, having a chilling effect on free speech.

The Web filtering technologies used by Middle Eastern and North African governments are also commonly used by schools, libraries, and offices, where blocking pornography is the norm.

While blocking profane content in such locations is justifiable, there is potential for massive overblocking.

The fact that Websense and SmartFilter are American-made is perhaps of greater concern: the US department of state's internet freedom agenda funds, among other initiatives, circumvention technology to get around the very same filtering systems exported by the companies.

This is not a new problem; in 2006, popular blog BoingBoing found itself blocked in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of which used SmartFilter at the time.

The reason? The company, then owned by Secure Computing (and now by Intel), wouldn't say, but told Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing that "even thumbnails of Michelangelo's 'David' could land a site on the forbidden 'nudity' list".

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton mentioned US companies in her first speech on internet freedom in January 2010, stating that American companies "need to make a principled stand". No public action has been taken to curb the export of filtering software.

Aside from Websense – which states that its software is prohibited for use by governments, except to filter illegal pornographic content – none of the companies mentioned have policies prohibiting the use of their software by foreign governments, or to block political content.

If the goal of the internet freedom agenda is, as stated by secretary of state Clinton, to "export Net freedom", then first we must stop exporting net censorship.

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.


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