Meet the U.S. Companies Helping Censor the Arab Web

The software used by autocratic regimes is often made in California

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While the U.S. State Department spends millions of dollars helping people in the Middle East circumvent Web censorship, a handful of California companies are providing autocratic Middle East regimes with the technology to censor the Web, reports The Wall Street Journal. The global Web-security market is a hot industry (valued at $1.8 billion in 2010) and U.S. companies are competing abroad to deliver web-blocking technologies to, in some cases, stridently repressive regimes. Here's a look at what U.S. companies are up to in the region:

McAfee The computer security firm has sold content-filtering software to Internet-service providers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, reports the Journal. The company sells its SmartFilter product which can block a range of web content deemed politically or "religiously offensive." An ISP worker in Kuwait says when the government requests that he block a sites content via SmartFilter "It's kind of a gentlemanly understanding: 'We're going to honor your requests."

Blue Coat Systems The network security firm has provided web-blocking technology and hardware in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar says the Journal, interviewing workers at Internet-service providers in the region. An official at Bahrain's main ISP said the government gives him a list of websites to block, which includes political sites. The ISP uses Blue Coat and McAfee SmartFilter technology to execute the block.

Palo Alto Networks The security firm provides even more comprehensive web blocking technology than McAfee. A Bahrainian telecom official tells the Journal the country is switching from McAfee to Palo Alto Networks because it can block specific features within websites such as videos or photos or anti-blocking software.
Websense This web security firm first discovered that Yemen was using its technology to dismantle privacy tools of web surfers two years ago. Publicly, the company said those companies violated its anticensorship policy and it would stop giving the offenders its "website-block lists." However, those Websense tools were still being used in Yemen as recently as August.
In their defense, the companies say they can't be held responsible for how customers user their product. "Obviously what an individual customer would do with a product once they acquire it is beyond our control," said a Blue Coat spokesperson. And in many cases, the technology is being used to block pornography. Still it's unsettling that the problem of Middle East censorship, which the State Department is actively fighting, is being serviced by companies in our own backyard.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.