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Websense yanks censorware from Yemen

Filter spat highlights repressive regime dilemma

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Websense has blocked two ISPs in Yemen from receiving updates after it emerged that they were using its filtering technology in a government-mandated censorship scheme.

The OpenNet Initiative, a pressure group that identifies and documents Internet filtering and surveillance, found that YemenNet and TeleYemen/Y.Net were using Websense's web filtering technology to restrict access to content, including independent news and political opposition sites (during 2006 elections, at least). The censorship was haphazard and inconsistent, not least because YemNet (the bigger of the two ISPs) purchased an insufficiently large user license, a report from ONI published last week reports. Yemen has around 150,000 internet users, mostly in businesses and schools.

According to ONI what censorware is now in place in the Arabian peninsular country is restricted to blacking porn, sex education materials, and anonymizing and privacy tools.

Websense maintains a policy of not selling to "governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in any sort of government-imposed censorship". In response to ONI's report, the US-based software developer took steps to prevent these ISPs obtaining updated block lists, a statement from Websense explains. The Yemini ISPs could continue to use Websense's filter but it will now become more and more unreliable over time as the distribution of "offensive" content on the internet changes.

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 incident raises much larger questions about the role of Western hi-tech firm is supplying filtering and censorware technology to repressive regimes. Websense, to its credit, has taken a stand on the issue but that has left a clear run for Smartfilter (now owned by McAfee) to sell to Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries in the Middle East, Slashdot reports.

China uses home-spun censorware technology, such as the controversial Green Dam filtering software, to control access to the internet at least in part. We've asked ONI for a breakdown on the favourite censorware of secret policemen across the world and will update this story with that information as and when it becomes available. ®

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