How American-Made Tech Helped Middle Eastern Governments Censor the Internet

A new study details how American and Canadian companies provided Internet filtering and monitoring software to the Iranian government, Mubarak’s Egypt and other repressive states. It’s still going on.

Internet censorship


Internet users in Egypt and Libya found themselves disconnected from the outside world thanks to “kill switches” that shut off network connections during civil unrest. The tech was made in the U.S.A., according to a new report.

Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the OpenNet Initiative are alleging that government censorship of the Internet in the Middle East and North Africa depends primarily on American and Canadian technology. McAfee, Netsweeper and Websense are all accused by the report of selling censorware to the governments of Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and others.

In one case, software funded by the United States government was revealed to have been used for Internet censorship. According to the report, Syrian ISPs Inet, Teranet, and Zad all use the popular Squid software to block users from viewing politically sensitive and pornographic websites. Squid is designed as a web caching aide, but the Syrians appear to have repurposed the software to censor objectionable websites. Squid is GNU freeware and was funded by American taxpayers via the National Science Foundation.

According to report authors Helmi Noman and Jillian C. York, North American companies are determining which sites Arab internet users can’t access:

At least nine Middle Eastern and North African state censors use Western-built technologies to impede access to online content. ISPs in Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia use the Western-built automated filtering solutions to block mass content, such as websites that provide skeptical views of Islam, secular and atheist discourse, sex, GLBT, dating services, and proxy and anonymity tools. These lists of sites are maintained by the Western company vendors. The ISPs also use these tools to add their own selected URLs to the companies’ black lists.


At least three national ISPs–Qatar’s Qtel, UAE’s du, and Yemen’s YemenNet–currently employ the Canadian-made commercial filter Netsweeper. Netsweeper Inc. does not seem to take issue with governments implementing political and religious censorship using their tools, and acknowledges working with telecom operators in Qatar, UAE, Yemen, India, and Canada. The company says its product can be used to block inappropriate content to meet government rules and regulations “based on social, religious or political ideals.

Netsweeper, of course, is not the only company marketing censorship equipment to Middle Eastern governments and ISPs. Internet providers in the United Arab Emirates rely on McAfee’s SmartFilter technology, which can block a variety of categories include “anonymizers,” “historical revisionism,” and “provocative attire.” A full list of website genres that can be blocked by McAfee, obtained via the report, is reproduced below.


Saudi Arabia, by comparison, relies on the products of the lesser known American firm Blue Coat to block access to websites through the country’s primary Internet gateway.

The Iranian government, according to the report, relies primarily on McAfee’s SmartFilter to maintain their internet censorship regime. Government authorities confirmed in 2009 that SmartFilter was being used to block access to objectionable websites including Twitter and the BBC. SmartFilter is also used by ISPs in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Oman, and Tunisia to one degree or another.

According to McAfee’s press materials, the URLs of websites to censor come through a variety of research methods:

The categorization of a particular URL is a defined process using objective standards and definitions. To gather and rate potential websites, McAfee uses various technologies, artificial intelligence techniques, such as link crawlers, security forensics, honey pot networks, sophisticated auto-rating tools, and customer logs.

This past February, Co.Design published an illustrated guide to Internet censorship around the world.


Narus, a subsidiary of Boeing, also provided deep packet inspection services to the Egyptian government–a fact not mentioned by the report. The deep packet inspection suite Narus sold to the Mubarak government aided secret police in tracking the IP addresses, Skype calls and personal information of dissidents.

[Images of Qatari censorship error message and of blockware obtained via OpenNet Initative]

Related: Israel and Palestine Flip Mideast Protest Script, Govern via Facebook

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article mistakenly implied that the internet censorship report was the exclusive project of Harvard University. The report was written via the OpenNet Initative, which is a collaboration between Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the Citizen Lab at Munk School of Global Affairs of the University of Toronto and the SecDev group.