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U.S. technology has been used to block, censor Net for years

Posted by inet - 2006-02-23

Internet users in Yemen can't get to beer.com because of technology from a couple of U.S. companies.
 
Surely this is a human rights violation, keeping innocent civilians from a website devoted to beer and women. Why, the Yemeni Netizens - all 150,000 of them - are also blocked from getting to gayegypt.com. They're denied spikybras.com! Which, by the way, ya gotta check out - it's hilarious, and no more racy than an I Dream of Jeannie episode.

Anyway, all of those websites are on Yemen's blocked list, according to a study to be released Tuesday by OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a research organization formed by Harvard, the U.K.'s Cambridge and the University of Toronto. The report will say that Yemen filters its Internet by using technology from Websense, based in San Diego, and Blue Coat Systems, based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Shocked? Upset? Time for more table-pounding congressional hearings such as the ones last week, where Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., berated reps from Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft about their roles in censorship in China, repeating, " Are you ashamed?"

Jeez - get a grip.

If you think there's something new or unique about Google censoring its Chinese website or Websense helping Yemen filter the Net - well, I hate to disappoint you. Those congressmen acting surprised about this stuff are either grandstanding or ignorant, or maybe both. To varying degrees, U.S. tech companies help repressive regimes around the world sift, block and censor the Net. They've been doing it for years.

I'm not condoning, excusing or admonishing the practice - just arguing for broader context in the current high-pitched debate about Google and its search brethren in China. Instead of picking out a couple of high-profile suspects and berating them, the nation needs to admit what we do all the time in the name of commerce, growth, jobs and technological supremacy - and then decide if we're comfortable with that.

"Companies claim they sell these technologies but don't dictate how they're used," says Ronald Deibert, professor at the University of Toronto and an ONI director. "The issue is, what is the level of responsibility?"

ONI did one study in Myanmar and discovered the Net there is filtered by Fortinet, another Sunnyvale company. ONI uses technology that can ping websites from inside the country and discover how the sites are being blocked. There's no denying ONI's empirical evidence.

Fortinet told ONI it didn't know how its software got into Myanmar and promised an investigation. But then ONI turned up images from Myanmar TV of a Fortinet sales director appearing with the prime minister. A request for comment from Fortinet went unanswered as of this writing.

How about Iran? This is a country that fears an open Internet the way the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz feared fire. When ONI did its study, it found that the predominant Iranian Internet service providers (ISPs) used SmartFilter from Secure Computing of San Jose, Calif.

A peer-reviewed paper published in January by University of Toronto professor Nart Villeneuve names Websense as the filter used by one major Iranian ISP, ParsOnline.

If you hunt around on the Web, you also find that an entity called Ertebatat Faragostar advertises as "the exclusive reseller of SurfControl in Iran."

SurfControl, based in Scotts Valley, Calif., makes a powerful Web-filtering system.

Requests for comment from Secure Computing, Websense and SurfControl also went unanswered.

The whole Middle East seems to be a gold mine for U.S. Web-filtering companies.

Blue Coat brags in a November press release that quarterly revenue for Blue Coat Middle East leapt 15%, "with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia leading the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries in terms of sales revenue." The Saudis block political opposition sites, Christian religion sites, pornography and gambling.

For that matter, the Saudis also block spikybras.com.

Then, of course, there's China. Every respectable U.S. tech company clamors to do business there. Tech start-ups can't get venture capital without putting a China strategy in their business plans.

ONI reports that, on an Internet plumbing level, China's Internet is loaded with products from U.S. companies Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems and 3Com. The products can help the Chinese censor the Internet.

Does that make the companies culpable? Is it any different than selling the Chinese cellphones on which government officials might make calls about how they can crush dissidents?

Where's the line?

The U.S. Web-filtering companies either sell to China or want to. Websense, Blue Coat, Secure Computing and SurfControl all have offices in China. They'd be irresponsible if they didn't.

Now Google is there, white-washing its search results for users inside China. Yahoo has given user data to Chinese law enforcement, resulting in arrests of dissidents. The companies got hauled before a blustery Rep. Lantos for basically doing what American tech companies do - selling the stuff to just about anyone who wants to buy it, and making the customers happy.

"Can you say in English that you're ashamed of what your company and what the other companies have done?" Lantos frothed last week.

"Congressman, I can't," said Google Vice President Elliot Schrage. "I don't think it's fair to say that we're ashamed."

Nothing in the American business coda says they should be. Now the question for all of us is: Do we want to change that?



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