When America exports censorship

Blocking the Web

American technology companies are taking heat for helping China's government police the Internet. But this controversy extends well beyond China and the so- called Internet Gang of Four: Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft. Just how many American companies are complicit hit home for me last month when readers of BoingBoing.net e-mailed us to say they had been suddenly denied access.

The cause was SmartFilter, a product from a Silicon Valley company, Secure Computing. A recent update to the nannyware's list of no-no sites had started blocking our site as containing "nudity." This is absurd: A visit to BoingBoing might yield posts about iPod- shaped cakes and spaceship blueprints, but not pornography. SmartFilter later told us that even thumbnails of Michelangelo's "David" could land a site on the forbidden "nudity" list.

Many locked-out readers were trying to view BoingBoing from libraries, schools and workplaces. That is regrettable but not tragic, as American viewers generally have other options. But after regular visitors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia complained, we discovered a more worrisome problem: Government-controlled Internet providers were using SmartFilter to effectively block access for entire countries.

Secure Computing refused to provide me with a list of the governments that use its filters. However, the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between the University of Toronto, Cambridge University and Harvard Law School, has compiled data on how such products are used in foreign nations where censorship is easy because the governments control all Internet service providers.

The initiative found that SmartFilter has been used by government-controlled monopoly providers in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. It has also been used by state-controlled providers in Iran, even though American companies are banned from selling technology products there. (Secure Computing denies selling products or updates to Iran, which is probably using pirated versions.)

According to OpenNet, filtering products from another U.S. company, Websense, have also been used by a state-controlled service provider in Iran, ParsOnline. Yemen uses Websense products to filter content on its two government-owned service providers. Websense software, the initiative says, filters out "sex education and provocative clothing sites, gay- and lesbian-related materials, gambling sites, dating sites, drug-related sites, sites enabling anonymous Web surfing, proxy servers that circumvent filtering, and sites with content related to converting Muslims to other religions."

The initiative also found that Myanmar, arguably the world's most repressive regime, uses censorware from the U.S. company Fortinet. And Singapore's government-controlled Singnet server uses filtering technology from SurfControl, a company that is now technically British but has its filtering operations headquarters in California.

One of America's most laudable national goals is the export of free speech and free information, yet U.S. companies are selling censorship. While some advocates of technology rights have proposed consumer boycotts and Congressional action to pressure these companies into responsible conduct, a good first step would be adding filtering technologies to the U.S. Munitions List, an index of products for which exporters have to file papers with the State Department. While this won't end such sales, it will bring them to light and give the public and lawmakers a better basis on which to consider stronger steps.

If American companies are already obligated to disclose the sale of bombs and guns to repressive regimes, why not censorware?

Xeni Jardin is a co-editor of BoingBoing.net.

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