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WSJ: U.S. Companies Helped Censor Internet in Middle East

mcafee and blue coat logosWhen the Middle East erupted in revolution earlier this year, many regimes responded to the upheaval by ramping up their online censorship efforts. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, a lot of them had help from American software companies.

Throughout the region, governments have been using technologies and tools developed by U.S. firms to clamp down on the Web. McAfee reportedly supplied filtering software to ISPs in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with Blue Coat Systems providing supplementary hardware to the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. A forthcoming report from OpenNet shows that ISPs in at least nine Middle East countries have used "Western-made tools for the purpose of blocking social and political content, effectively blocking a total of over 20 million Internet users from accessing such websites."

The private sector's involvement in Middle East censorship seems to be at odds with U.S. government policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Internet freedom a priority for the Obama administration, and the State Department has already spent more than $20 million on software designed to help Arab users get around government censorship.

The U.S., however, isn't blaming American companies for restricting online freedoms. A senior government official told the Journal that the State Department is simply responding to "a problem caused by governments abusing U.S. products." The official acknowledged that many Middle East regimes have used American technology "to filter for political purposes," but insisted that the State Department is committed to "producing and distributing software to get around those efforts."

Software manufacturers, meanwhile, argue that it's difficult for them to control how clients use their Web-filtering products. "Obviously what an individual customer would do with a product once they acquire it is beyond our control," said McAfee spokesman Joris Evers, echoing similar remarks from a Blue Coat representative.

But some free speech advocates maintain that tech companies could, and should, do more to control how their products are used. Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard Law School, suggests that manufacturers insert into their software mechanisms to actively combat government censorship. "They could build into the software something that signals, and, in fact, sends back to them exactly what kind of filtering is taking place," Zittrain explained. "There's no rocket science there, it's just their customer wouldn't like it."

Tags: BlueCoatSystems, censorship, FreedomOfSpeech, Internet, Jonathan Zittrain, JonathanZittrain, mcafee, MiddleEast, politics, protest, security, software, StateDepartment, top, Web