Walid Al-Saqaf's Alkasir is an unsung hero in the recent political overhaul in Egypt and the Arab world. Alkasir--meaning "circumventor"--is what has allowed many ordinary citizens to access Facebook and Twitter and share vital information despite government blocks.
"Given that the Arab world is suffering from political censorship, there is a strong need for this in the region," Al-Saqaf tells Fast Company.
The site uses a "split tunnel" technology to help people access blocked websites and map censorship by verifying filtering of websites around the world. And part of its grassroots success is that it only focuses on blocked sites for ideas and opinion-sharing. And it feeds off of word of mouth. "I didn't carry out formal marketing and that was intentional. I wanted people to investigate and find out on their own," says Al-Saqaf.
Timing was key, too. "People in Egypt were in a panic," Al-Saqaf says. "They didn't know what to do and they would email me saying they were so thankful. For some websites, you can't even use proxies. But people would download this program and then they would be able to access updated reports." And once people found out about the service, they would then tweet about it, which helped to spread the word.
Below is one anecdote from Syria that translates as "Thank you very much for this program that is very very very outstanding. God bless you for all the efforts you are doing. Thanks thanks thanks and a million thanks."
"شكرا لكم جزيل الشكر على هذا البرنامج الممتاز جدا جدا جدا جزاكم الله الف خير على ماتبذلونه من مجهود شكرا شكرا شكرا و مليون شكرا"
The site evolved out of Al-Saqaf's own experiences of censorship in his home country of Yemen. His site, YemenPortal.net is an open platform for Yemeni websites to voice their opinions, and the government blocked it after it started making room for dissident voices.
"I was a victim of censorship and I still am. The government blocked my site in 2008 and they didn't give any reason for it. I believe it got blocked because it didn't filter out any dissident content," says Al-Shaqaf.
"My website became a platform for all voices, regardless of background or affiliation. I only had a small portion of dissident content, but I was seen as promoting dissidence," he says.
And, "Instead of negotiating, they all of a sudden blocked it. And then they started negotiating, after they blocked it. The President's media secretary, Abdo Borji, told me 'We don't like that your website has content that is against the national government of Yemen.' They said 'You need to block this list of websites. After that we won't censor your website anymore.' I said not only will I remain neutral, but I gave him the gift of Alkasir. I said 'Hey, if you ever need to access a site that has been blocked, use this.'"
Al-Saqaf's revolutionary efforts have garnered attention outside of Yemen, too. Last year he was named a TED Fellow and he was also honored with a democracy award from the University in Sweden where he is currently pursuing a PhD in Internet censorship.
And in Yemen specifically, though the tension has not yet exploded as it has in Egypt and Libya, he continues to promote YemenPortal.net from afar.
"Since the revolutionary atmosphere has built up in the region, I now aggregate thousands and thousands of Facebook posts that are calling for peaceful protests against the oppression. I opened a window on our homepage that displays a banner in Arabic that says 'this is a revolutionary portal.' When you click on it, it displays videos, pictures, and posts that all call for the end of the Yemeni regime."
"I'm quite optimistic given the wave of change in the region," says Al-Saqaf. "Libya's regime is on the verge of collapse. Even if Yemen's regime doesn't fall, it's giving concession after concession and releasing more activists, so I don't think they'll attack protestors. I hope they seek ways to surrender peacefully and not lead the way of Ghadaffi."
Protestors are calling for the resignation of Yemeni's long-standing dictator, Ali Abdallah Saleh.
"There are many corrupt apparatuses and they need to be tried fro their crimes against the people of Yemen," says Al-Saqaf.
For the future, Al-Saqaf plans to expand Alkasir to be able to accommodate a range of web service access, including VOIP. So if Skype gets blocked, for example, Alkasir provides a way to access it.
He also finds other ways to use Alkasir. "I use it for research and maps, too, as the service identifies blocked sites. In that way it serves as a source of knowledge for scientists and academics and at the same time it empowers activists," he says.
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[Top image courtesy of TED]