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?
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Secure Computing has said publicly in the past that the Iranians may have obtained an illegal copy of its software. A company executive, Atri Chatterjee, says the software, called SmartFilter, would still function without frequent database updates from Secure Computing, though at a degraded capacity. Such updates could also be obtained illicitly, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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ONI also found in 2005 that Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates, countries with Internet censorship, use SmartFilter. The company wouldn't confirm or deny.
"We are a US organization that adheres to US rules. We only do business with organizations and countries we are approved to do business with," says Mr. Chatterjee.
That position is echoed by Blue Coat Systems Inc., whose sales materials have boasted that Internet access across Saudi Arabia is "monitored and controlled" by its technology.
US export rules focus mainly on national-security criteria, says Clif Burns, a partner at Powell Goldstein LLP in Washington and editor of exportlawblog.com. "It may well be the case that something doesn't have a [security] impact on the US but is otherwise improper or not good citizenship to export," says Mr. Burns.
The only cases where censorware cannot be sold, he says, involve certain forms of encryption or countries under broad US trade sanctions. In the case of Burma, sanctions probably don't outlaw a sale, he says, because the sanctions mostly prohibit imports from Burma, not exports of US goods to it.
Moves are afoot in Washington to take a harder line against censorware exports. High-profile congressional hearings last year examined the roles of Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco in helping China censor the Internet. Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey has introduced the Global Online Freedom Act, a bill that would, among other things, study the feasibility of restricting censorware exports.
There is some debate over whether such filtering software merits real concern. In Burma, the regime ultimately decided to shut off the country's Internet access after it appeared unable to selectively filter out antigovernment communication.
As of on Sept. 28, the main Burmese ISP completely severed its connection to the outside world, and only occasionally reconnected starting last week, says Steve Gibbard, a researcher at the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit research institute focused on Internet security and stability. The shutdown did not appear to be the work of a software filter, but "a matter of unplugging a cable or flipping a power switch," says Mr. Gibbard.
The filtering software, in fact, may have given the Burmese regime enough of a false sense of security to allow Internet access in the first place, some suggest.
"Without [Internet filtering tools], there wouldn't have been access to begin with because [citizens] wouldn't have been trusted with it," says Bill Woodcock, also with the Packet Clearing House. Nor does pressure for censorship always come from the top, he adds. "In much of the world, the Internet is seen as this horrible sewer that is bringing things in that the government [feels popular pressure] to stop."
Internet-censorship tools can be defeated with the use of proxy servers. But many people living under repressive government are not going to hear about, or dare to try, methods to get around Internet fire walls, say experts.
"Some people say [censorware] is ineffective because dissidents can get around it," says Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and anticensorship activist. "I say political control doesn't have to be 100 percent to be effective. Controlling the ability of the vast majority of the population to see outside information is still very effective for the goals of the totalitarian regime."