A Blind-date with the Censors in UAE

Western software companies continue to make key decisions about what is acceptable speech in numerous countries around the world by compiling the lists of web sites that fall into potentially undesirable categories, such as provocative content and hate speech.

Livejournal.com, a free service for journaling and blogging, was blocked in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week, apparently because it was categorized as a dating site in the database of the filtering software Secure Computing. The UAE uses SmartFilter, a product of Secure Computing, to block access to various content categories including dating, porn, sex, and gambling.

We checked livejournal.com and three other URLs currently blocked in the UAE for current categorization in the SmartFilter database and found that all were categorized as “dating” sites, even though many will argue against this categorization.

Western companies sell to ISPs not only filtering software, but also decisions on speech. This blocking highlights serious issues surrounding coverage, quality, accuracy and inaccuracy of Web filtering. Secure Computing, used by ISPs in various countries in the Middle East, has a database of 20 million blockable Web sites in over 91 categories. So when ISPs purchase SmartFitlter, they also buy 20 million decisions and 91 potential inaccurate categorizations.

It is up to the ISPs to make corrections and exceptions in either direction. Web sites such as friendster.com and hi5.com were unblocked in the UAE a few weeks ago, even though they are still categorized as dating Web sites by SmartFilter. These processes, however, are not always clear or easy to figure out, and site owners may not be easily able to appeal the blocking of their site.