When a Canadian company decides what citizens in the Middle East can access online

Users in Qatar, UAE, Yemen, and Kuwait reported via Twitter in the past couple of days that they are not able to access the blog hosting platform tumblr.com or any other blog hosted by the platform. This filtering incident surprised both the users and the telecom regulators. ictQATAR, Qatar's Regulatory Authority, denied (Arabic) via Twitter it was involved in this decision and asked the public to send their complaints to the the country's ISP."

I investigated the issue and found out that the website tumblr.com and all blogs hosted by Tumblr are indeed blocked, but interestingly, the decision to block the site was actually made in Canada by the company that provides the filtering technology to the ISPs in Qatar (Qtel), UAE (du), Yemen (Yemennet), and Kuwait (Fasttelco).

I checked how Netsweeper currently categorizes the Web site tumblr.com, and found out that it has been categorized/miscategorized as ‘Journals and Blogs’ and as ‘Pornography’. As a result, tumbr.com and all blogs hosted by the service became inaccessible for Internet users in the four countries because ISPs in these countries rely on Netsweeper technology to implement national Internet filtering. Among the categories these ISPs block is 'Pornography’. Thus, when a site is categorized by the commercial filter provider as ‘pornography’, the website becomes automatically blocked by the national censors, unless they choose to manually recategorize that site, or until the commercial filter provider changes the categorization of that URL to a category that is not targeted by the national censors.

Screenshot shows how Netsweeper categorizes/miscategorizes the URL of the blog hosting services tumbr.com

The blocking of Tumblr will probably not last long, but this blocking incident is yet another example that highlights two key issues:

- Decisions surrounding Internet filtering have become in some cases centralized due to the way filtering technology works. Netsweeper provides the ISPs with both the technology used to censor, but also makes on their behalf decisions as to what is appropriate/inappropriate to access by citizens using the relevant ISPs.

- Artificial intelligence is not always intelligent. Netsweeper, like other commercial Internet filters, relies on artificial intelligence to analyze content of websites and to make decisions as to how each URL should be categorized. This mechanism is evidently fragile and, as a result, the flow of online information gets disrupted.

Jillian C. York and I researched this issue in depth in our paper West Censoring East: The Use of Western Technologies by Middle East Censors

A screen shot of Yemen’s ISP Yemennet’s blockpage saying tumbr is blocked because it is ‘pornography’