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Yemenis Should Be Incensed At Websense 93

Slashdot regular Bennett Haselton writes "Websense, a US-based Internet-censoring software maker, claims not to sell to foreign governments that are censoring Internet access for all of their citizens. But the OpenNet Initiative reports that national ISPs in Yemen have been using Websense to filter Internet access for at least the past four years. Will Websense revoke their license? And what would happen then?" Update: 08/10 21:01 GMT by KD : Bennett adds, "After the story ran, Websense sent me this update." "Since we were informed about the potential use of our products by Yemeni ISPs based on government-imposed Internet restrictions in Yemen, we have investigated this potential non-compliance with our anti-censorship policy. Because our product operates based on a database system, we are able to block updated database downloads to locations and to end users where the use of our product would violate law or our corporate policies. We believe that we have identified the specific product subscriptions that are being used for Web filtering by ISPs in Yemen, and in accordance with our policy against government-imposed censorship, we have taken action to discontinue the database downloads to the Yemeni ISPs."

The Internet censoring software maker Websense has a published policy on their website against allowing their software to be used for government-mandated censorship:

Websense does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in any sort of government-imposed censorship. Any government-mandated censorship projects will not be engaged by Websense. If Websense does win a business and later discovers that the government is requiring all of its national ISPs to engage in censorship of the Web and Web content, we will remove our technology and capabilities from the project.

This supposedly differentiates the company from competitors such as Smartfilter (now owned by McAfee), which according to OpenNet Initiative reports, is used to censor the Internet in several African and Middle Eastern countries including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Sudan. Websense once enthusiastically competed for the contract to censor Internet access in Saudi Arabia, but has now apparently ceded such markets to Smartfilter.

However, according to the ONI, the two national ISPs in the country of Yemen are using Websense to censor Internet access for all users. The researchers found that some sites are blocked in Yemen that are probably not on Websense's original filtering list, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party, as well as sites that are blocked under standard Websense categories, such as pornography, sex education materials, and "anonymizing and privacy tools" (presumably, proxy sites).

Websense declined to tell me whether they have ever revoked an ISP's license to use Websense after discovering that the ISP was using it in violation of their anti-government-censorship policy. They also declined to say whether they had any ISP customers in Middle Eastern countries, apart from Yemen. (For any Middle Eastern ISP using Websense, there's a high probability that they would be doing it as a result of a government mandated filtering policy, and hence in violation of Websense's stated rules.) But regarding the use of Websense in Yemen, Websense did reply to say simply, "We will look into the matter. If our software is being used in violation of our policy, we will take appropriate action." I think that if they were serious about preventing their software from being used for government censorship, they should have red-flagged any purchase from a national ISP in a country with one of the worst press-freedom ratings in the world, but better late than never.

There are only about 200,000 Internet users in Yemen, compared to over six million in Saudi Arabia, millions more in other censored Middle Eastern countries, and 300 million in Internet-censored China. (And even the Yemenis' Internet access is not filtered all the time, since the ONI report says that the number of concurrent licenses for Websense purchased by the Yemeni ISPs is less than the number of Yemeni Internet users, and when the number of concurrent users exceeds the number of licenses, all requests go through unfiltered!) So it would be a small step towards global liberation of the Internet, but still equivalent to de-censoring Internet access for every resident of Boise if the city had 100% broadband penetration, which is enough to justify putting the squeeze on Websense.

What exactly would happen if Websense did revoke their license for the Yemeni ISPs? They couldn't force the ISPs to uninstall the software, but they could stop allowing them to download further updates to the Websense blocked-site list. Most installations of Websense are configured to download updates to the list every day, to block the latest adult websites as well as to try and stay ahead of newly released proxy sites. Once the list updates stopped, all existing blocked websites would remain blocked, but newly created adult sites and proxy sites would be accessible, and the filtering would gradually become less and less effective. So it would be a concrete victory for Yemeni Internet users, and not just a symbolic gesture.

How would we know if Websense went through with it, anyway, if they refuse to confirm or deny that they have revoked the licenses for Yemen? The ONI declined to tell me how exactly they determined that Yemeni ISPs were using Websense. (Not that I mind; they could have obtained this information with the help of people whose jobs and freedom would be at stake if they were found out, in which case ONI would not be able to share their confidential sources.) Presumably the ONI could repeat their research in the future to determine if Websense were still being used. However, even if they can see that Websense software is still being used to censor the Internet, it may not be easy to tell whether the Yemeni ISPs are still downloading updates to the blocked-site list. My suggestion: Create a new proxy site and don't publicize it anywhere, but report it to Websense for blocking. Test a few days later to verify that it's blocked by Websense, but not by Smartfilter or other popular blocking programs. Then see if it's blocked in Yemen as well. If not, then hopefully that means that Websense cut them off.

And then what? Maybe the Yemeni ISPs will just continue using Websense with a frozen copy of the blocked site list, reasoning that most of the well-known adult sites that users are going to try to visit, are probably already on that list. Maybe they'll set up a shell company in another country, posing as an ISP requesting a legitimate copy of Websense, and buy a new list subscription that way. But it will still be worth it to press Websense into revoking their license, even if it only breaks Internet censorship in Yemen for a few months or a year. At that point, perhaps they'll just take their business to Smartfilter like almost every other Middle Eastern country that censors the Internet.

After all, we shouldn't pick on Websense too much, when Smartfilter is censoring national Internet access for about 100 times that many users in total. If Websense says they don't provide software to government censors, then we should hold them to that. But the real scandal isn't that American censorware companies provide filters to censoring governments while claiming not to, it's that American companies are doing it at all.

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Yemenis Should Be Incensed At Websense

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