There are some topics you’d expect repressive regimes to block online. There’s porn (obviously), opposing political ideals, religious diversity, and websites, like Peacefire.org, that instruct people on how to move around those blockers.
And then there’s the Boy Scouts, specifically Troop 87 of North Andover, Massachusetts, which, for some reason, has made it onto Saudi Arabia’s list of verboten web domains, according to programmer and Internet freedom activist Bennett Haselton. The Saudi censors’ list also includes troops 103 and 78, a German website dedicated to the preservation of big cats, and the Tucson Jazz Institute.
Trying to put barriers on something as vast and nebulous as the Internet often results in lolzy blocked domains like these. Take, for example, the censorship work behind Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, which at times has exiled American band Hoobastank from the site’s lexicon, along with the term “hairy bacon”–or, how Weibo users refer to the preserved body of Mao Zedong. Sometimes these are the actions of algorithmic glitches or the deft, nuanced work of an army of individual censors. But in Saudi Arabia’s case, it’s something slightly different altogether.
Haselton, who founded Peacefire.org, discovered a partial list of Saudi Arabia’s blocked websites after devising a process with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab to test for the presence of URL censorship in countries all over the world. Specifically, Haselton was curious to see if Saudi Arabia and other countries, were using URL filtering products from Western companies–the same sort of filters to stop kids from looking at porn on public school library computers.
Weirdly enough, Saudi Arabia’s error messages to blocked sites resembled those of McAfee’s Smartfilter, a common URL filtering product. So, Haselton and his colleagues came up with 10 proxy sites that might warrant filtering. They submitted five to Smartfilter for blocking, and left the other five alone. After Smartfilter confirmed that it had added the first give sites to its block list, Haselton noticed that those five sites also became blocked in Saudi Arabia, while the control group remained untouched.
Saudi Arabian censors, as it happened, were using McAfee.
Haselton explains that Middle Eastern Internet censorship usually falls into three broad categories: censorship software defaults (like porn or gambling sites), sites that accidentally fall into the pornography category (like the Wyoming Bighorn Basin’s Sportsmen’s group, which includes “nsfw” in the URL), and specific sites that Saudi Arabian censors add to their own block list, like Amnesty International’s reporting on human rights abuses in their country. But that still doesn’t explain why Saudi Arabian censors would block things like an Australian singer-songwriter and the therapy dog providers on Haselton’s list.
“The short answer is that we don’t know,” Haselton wrote in an e-mail. “If the company wants to reveal how those sites got blocked, fine, but we can’t force them. All we can do is document the indisputable fact that these sites did get blocked.”
There’s some exquisite irony to the fact that anti-virus mogul John McAfee is an outspoken critic of government overreach in the form of the NSA’s online surveillance. The company he founded, as Haselton points out, is currently selling its products to at least one repressive regime (McAfee, the company, is now owned by Intel). In early 2013, Citizen Lab also identified Blue Coat Systems, a California-based software company, as one that sold censorship tools to 61 countries with delicate human rights and surveillance histories, including Syria, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
“I do think blocking software companies have a responsibility not to sell to foreign government censors, but I think corporations have responsibilities to do lots of things that they’re not currently doing,” Haselton writes.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation agrees, and has even drafted up a set of “know your customer” guidelines for tech companies looking to avoid becoming “repression’s little helper.” But in the meantime, you can peruse the partial list of Saudi Arabia’s blocked websites here. Most are very SFW.