Filtering the Mideast Web

Posted March 28th, 2011 at 3:44 pm (UTC-4)
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And Shuttering One Channel of American Public Diplomacy

Paul Sonne and Steve Stecklow at the Wall Street Journal have an eye-opening feature today, and the headline says it all:  “U.S. Products Help Block Mideast Web.”

Sonne and Stecklow document how the governments of Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among others, have been acquiring web-filtering software made by firms such as McAfee and Blue Coat Systems, both of California.  They report that software designed for parents to filter the web for their children  is apparently being used by officials to block local access to a variety of websites – including political opposition and human rights groups.

Graphic by the Wall Street Journal mapping Middle East nations that use US softward for web filtering (courtesy the Wall Street Journal)

In a test run by the Journal, online users in Bahrain tried to access various news and political websites via the Bahraini ISP Batelco.   Batelco uses a variety of filtering products, including McAfee’s “SmartFilter.”  The Journal  reports that “…online community forums for Shia villages and the websites of at least two human rights groups were censored” as well as other sites.

This isn’t the first time U.S. products have been used to filter out political dissent.  In 2009 it was revealed that San Diego-based Websense had sold products to the government of Yemen where it was used to prevent access to various Anonymizer-type programs.   Websense has a policy not to sell its products to governments that censor the web, but explained in a statement at the time that “…things can slip through the cracks.”

What Sonne and Stecklow document, however, is less “slip” and more bottom line.  And it’s creating some friction between those private firms and the U.S. State Department.   Sonne and Stecklow write:

“For the U.S., the role of Western companies in Internet censorship poses a dilemma. In a speech last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, ‘Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to take a principled stand.’

“Lately the State Department has spent more than $20 million to fund software and technologies that help people in the Middle East circumvent Internet censorship that is sustained by Western technology.

“Asked about that policy, a senior State Department official said the U.S. is responding to ‘a problem caused by governments abusing U.S. products.’ When governments re-purpose U.S.-made tools ‘to filter for political purposes, we are involved in producing and distributing software to get around those efforts.'”

We’ve previously documented how entrepreneurs like Walid al-Saqaf are working to get around web-filtering with products such as “alkasir” – a program that works to evade the filters.   But in the battle between opening up and shutting off the Internet, the role played by software made by U.S.-based firms may become much more contentious.

In a related item we also noted, via Kim Andrew Elliott’s blog, news that the U.S. State Department’s “” website will be shutting down at the end of the month.  Begun as an project to “engage the world” with news about the U.S. and public diplomacy, the site reports it will be “…decommissioned on March 31, 2011, and will be available only as an archive site.”



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