Middle East Censors Use Western Technologies to Block Viruses and Free Speech

By: Helmi Noman on 27 July 2009
Posted in

As the debate over Internet censorship has intensified around the globe, many researchers, journalists, and human right advocates have been increasingly interested in the role of Western firms in state sponsored-imposed censorship regimes.

ONI research reveals that Internet filtering in the Middle East and North Africa is implemented by several states using U.S. products such as Websense Web Filter or Smart Filter. Typically, ISPs are required to carry out national filtering policies. Given the large number of Web sites that they are expected to block, the only practical choice for them is to employ third-party filtering technologies.
ONI is able to determine the filtering technology used by each ISP by first examining the blockpage served by the ISPs for clues, although the process can be more complicated if the ISP disguises filtering by serving error messages, which is not uncommon in the region.

Some blockpages have the name and/or logo of the commercial filter as well as the category of the blocked content.
For example, the two government-run ISPs in Yemen, YemenNet and TeleYemen, use Websense filtering products. Both ISPs serve blockages for users attempting to access censored content.

The blockpage is generated by the commercial software, Websense WebFilter. In the case of YemenNet, the blockpage displays the message, “Access denied to the system by “Websense Filter”. The blockpage automatically names the category of the URL blocked. See figure 1.

Figure 1: Screenshot of the ISP YemenNet’s blockpage.

In 2007, YemenNet introduced a new blockpage and removed the reference to Websense. (Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Screenshot of the ISP YemenNet’s new blockpage.

The other government-run ISP however, still serves a blockpage with a reference to Websense. The blockpage reads, “Access to this web page is restricted. Reason: The Websense category “User-Defined” is filtered. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Screenshot of the ISP Y.net blockpage.

Components of Filtering Software

The commercial filters have two main components: the software and the blocklists.

ISPs can buy the software from resellers in the region. For example, the national Internet service provider in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Etisalat, selected SmartFilter from the UAE-based distributor Fourth Dimension System (FDC). FDC said in a statement published on their Web site in August 2008, “Etisalat has selected Smart Filter from FDS to secure and filter the UAE internet for more than 1,000,000 users.” 1 According to the FDS Web site, the company has a “strategic partnership” with Secure Computing (now acquired by McAfee).2

The other main component of the filter is the blocklists of sites that might be employed. These databases are huge, containing millions of URLs.

McAfee TrustedSource, the owner of SmartFilter, says their Web database has “more than 25 million blockable websites across more than 90 categories.”3

Once an ISP has a licensed commercial filter, it can get an account to take advantage of the URL database maintained by the companies. ISPs using products like SmartFilter and Websense can select which of the content categories they want to filter. They may also create custom categories for URLs not provided by the commercial filter and enable certain users to override the filter.

Yemen’s ISP Teleyemen was reported by Websense as one of the major accounts it added in 2001.4

Both SmartFilter and Websense can be employed to protect computer networks from viruses and malware. They also enable censors in the Middle East and North Africa to filter the Internet. These companies, in compiling and categorizing Web sites, are effectively making the fine-grained decisions about the appropriateness of individual Web sites. No one should be surprised if the complex ethical questions arising from these commercial relationships are subject to greater scrutiny by governments and human rights organizations.