When US-made 'censorware' ends up in iron fists
Despite Burma's record of repression, it's probably legal for American companies to sell Internet filters there, export lawyers say. But is it ethical?
During Burma's short-lived uprising late last month, young dissidents risked their lives to smuggle news of their peaceful protest to the outside world. They may have been up against Internet censorship software designed in America, if a connection found to exist in 2005 still holds.Skip to next paragraph
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Moreover, if a US firm wanted to sell Internet filters to Burma (Myanmar) today, despite several layers of economic sanctions against the government there, it would probably be legal to do so, say export lawyers.
Absence of federal regulation has allowed so-called censorware of at least four California companies to end up in the hands of foreign governments shown to block citizens' access to political, religious, and other websites.
Events in Burma provide new fodder for a censorware debate that had focused, until now, on China. Some experts note that repressive regimes might never have allowed Internet access at all if not for the filters, which tech-savvy citizens can overcome. But critics say US companies are breaking American values by abetting such censorship.
"Where the best and the brightest of Silicon Valley had been wiring the world, they are now, in these cases, doing the opposite," says Ronald Deibert, an investigator for the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaboration of Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge universities and the University of Toronto.
ONI researchers are conducting tests that have so far found censorship in 24 of 40 countries. Testing involves local users in each country trying to access various websites. Certain patterns and failure messages emerge, indicating which filtering system a country uses.
The software companies involved sell this technology primarily to private companies in the US and abroad. Companies use these tools to keep employees from accessing pornography sites and websites infected with viruses.
Repressive governments also turn to these American systems, not only to filter out porn and viruses, but also to block political, religious, and other websites.
ONI testing in 2005 indicated that Burma censored the Internet using software made by Fortinet, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company. The firm, says ONI, responded by saying it doesn't sell software directly to end-users. ONI challenges Fortinet's claim, pointing to a 2004 article, reachable online, by the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper. The story covers a ceremony bringing together Burma's prime minister and Benjamin Teh, described as "an official representative of Fortinet."
"Given Mr. Teh's participation, it seems unlikely that Fortinet did not know of the sale of its software to Burma," notes the ONI report.
Fortinet did not respond to two e-mail and at least five phone messages to three company officials over the course of last week.
Other ONI research revealed that Iranian Internet service providers (ISPs) have used filtering software of two other California firms: Websense Inc. and Secure Computing Corp.
A Websense spokeswoman denies the firm has sold software to Iran, which would be illegal. A published study by Nart Villeneuve at the University of Toronto found that from 2004 to 2005 the Iranian ISP ParsOnline used Websense's product. By 2006, the ISP had dropped Websense, he said in an e-mail.
The company's website advertises Websense's ability to categorize, and therefore filter, websites in categories such as "advocacy groups" and "religion" – specifying, among others, Christian Science. However, the Websense spokeswoman said, in an e-mail, its contracts forbid customers from using the technology to censor Internet content without permission from both the affected consumers and Websense's "express prior written approval."