Exporting Censorship (NYT)


AMERICAN technology firms are taking heat from the public and Congress 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 dozens of 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’s data managers later told us that even thumbnails of Michelangelo’s “David” could land a site on the forbidden “nudity” list.

Many of our locked-out readers were trying to view BoingBoing from libraries, schools and their 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 service 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.)