Middle East Regimes Use US Technology to Block Internet Access

Regimes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been using US products to censor anti-government protesters voicing their dissent on the Internet.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that governments in the Middle East are buying content-filtering software from American companies that allows them to prevent access to web sites that many protesters use to organize movements for political reform. While the Qaddafi regime in Libya resorted to a total Internet shutdown the first week of March, other Middle East governments have turned to products built by McAfee Inc., Networks Inc. and Blue Coast Systems Inc., among other companies, in order to block web sites that allow protesters to share videos and congregate on Facebook.

As social media becomes a more useful tool in staging revolutions, pro-democracy bloggers and online activists have seen a growing backlash from governments who arrest and beat them to stifle dissent. Now the regimes' oppressive tactics have followed the protesters online.

Canada-based Netsweeper Inc. has also sold Internet-blocking technology to buyers in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Yemen, while the Boeing-owned surveillance company Narus helped Egyptian government forces filter and track sources of communication.

Web-blocking technology is used in the US to prevent users from surfing pornography sites in schools or public libraries and protecting ISPs from viruses and other cyber attacks. To tackle the problem of those technologies being used to clamp down on political dissent, the State Department has put $20 million into software that helps citizens in the Middle East dodge Internet censorship. When foreign governments utilize US products “to filter for political purposes, we are involved in producing and distributing software to get around those efforts,” a senior State Department official told The Wall Street Journal.

Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last year, “Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to take a principled stand.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) wrote last month for Politico, “The Internet has helped activists from Morocco to Iran organize demonstrations and publicize human rights abuses … With a few notable exceptions, the technology industry is failing to address serious human rights challenges.”

“US technology companies allow millions around the world to express themselves more fully and freely. But the industry has a moral obligation to ensure that its products and services do not help repressive governments,” Durbin wrote.

But Ahmed Aldoseri, director of information and communication technologies at the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in Bahrain, told The Wall Street Journal, “[the] culture that we have in the Middle East is much more conservative than in the US,” and that freedom of speech is only guaranteed “as long as it remains within general politeness.”

A statement from McAfee Inc. said the company “has no control over, or visibility into how an organization implements its own filtering policy.”

When pro-democracy demonstrations began in Tunisia in January, a wave of anti-government revolutions rippled across the Middle East. Prior to the uprisings, Tunisia was ranked alongside China as the world's second-worst online performer.

Prominent Chinese blogger and activist Ran Yufei was arrested Monday for inciting subversion of state power.