By George Hale
The Palestinian Authority has quietly instructed Internet providers to block access to news websites whose reporting is critical of President Mahmoud Abbas, according to senior government officials and data analyzed by network security experts.
As many as eight news outlets have been rendered unavailable to many Internet users in the West Bank, after technicians at the Palestinian Telecommunications Company, or PalTel, tweaked a US-developed software called Squid to return error pages, a detailed technical analysis indicates. Several small companies are using a similar setup.
The decision this year to begin blocking websites marks a major expansion of the government’s online powers. Experts say it is the biggest shift toward routine Internet censorship in the Palestinian Authority’s history. Aside from one incident in 2008, Palestinians have generally been free to read whatever they wanted.
“This is unprecedented for them,” says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US digital rights group. “It is troubling because they had done a relatively good job at keeping the Internet open until now.”
The affected websites are Amad, Fatah Voice, Firas Press, In Light Press, Karama Press, Kofia Press, Milad News and Palestine Beituna. With their focus on internal Fatah issues, none are among the most popular outlets in Palestine. But they all report on daily news.
Many of the sites have been described as loyal to Muhammad Dahlan, a former Fatah leader and critic of Abbas. A feud between them took on new urgency last summer, when Fatah sought to expel the former strongman and security forces raided his home. As far back as June 2011, the Palestinian Authority was complaining about its inability to shut down alleged Dahlan media based abroad, the al-Hayat newspaper reported at the time. Four of those sites are now being blocked.
Several Palestinian officials have expressed reservations about the decision, calling it embarrassing and counterproductive. One of them, a member of Salam Fayyad’s cabinet, agreed to speak on the record for this story. Other officials who spoke to Ma’an in recent weeks were not authorized by the Palestinian Authority or PalTel to discuss either the blocking decision or the technology being used to enforce it.
Officials familiar with the order say it came from Ahmad al-Mughni, the Palestinian attorney general. They say he delivered it in person to the CEO of at least one of the service providers being forced to prevent access. Al-Mughni dismissed these claims and refused to take questions from Ma’an.
“I am not the court,” he said Tuesday without elaborating.
According to a Palestinian official with first-hand knowledge of the decision, the attorney general was acting on instructions from higher up in the government — either from the president’s office or an intelligence director. Still, there is no indication a judge approved any element of the censorship program, suggesting al-Mughni issued the decree under his own perceived authority, the official said.
Other Palestinian officials more readily pointed a finger at al-Mughni.
“The attorney general is responsible,” communications minister Mashour Abu Daka told Ma’an. He said al-Mughni submitted the order to PalTel over his objections and despite concerns it could be illegal. There is no Palestinian law that permits Web censorship and the attorney general knows it, Abu Daka charged.
“He made up his own laws to justify what was solely his decision,” the minister said. “Blocking websites is against the public interest. I oppose it without exception.”
‘Not going to jail’
The attorney general is already facing criticism from journalists and human rights groups for ordering the arrest in March of a newspaper reporter accused of defaming the foreign minister. He also signed off on the recent arrests of two bloggers after they criticized Abbas on Facebook. Palestinian journalists have held a number of demonstrations protesting the clampdown.
By contrast, the blocking has gone largely unnoticed. Mada, a press freedom group, raised the issue of Milad and Amad, while US blogger “Challah Hu Akbar” reported extensively about In Light Press, but many Palestinians remain unaware the Internet is censored. This is partly because providers have not acknowledged their cooperation nor have subscribers been told any websites are off limits.
Even at private Internet companies, employees fear losing their jobs or worse if they discuss the program. “Sorry, but I’m not going to jail,” said one PalTel technician when asked for a list of the websites.
PalTel representatives refused to answer basic questions such as when they received the order or who signed it, but extensive testing shows its Internet provider Hadara has blocked as many as eight websites at a time. A PalTel spokeswoman said in an email that “we only implement government decisions and we do not get involved in the decisions they make as long as they are backed by the existing laws.”
The testing was conducted over four weeks by Ma’an and the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a new project by Web security experts Arturo Filasto and Jacob Appelbaum to track censorship around the world. Using a tool called an OONI probe, they scanned 1.1 million websites for a specific type of blocking.
“The technique being used to restrict access is a transparent HTTP proxy,” Filasto said, meaning a company intercepts attempts to reach blocked websites and returns a different page. Testing a connection in Bethlehem demonstrated that Hadara was blocking access to eight websites, while others blocked between four and six. A few of the sites are also blocked in Gaza, Internet users there said.
The method being employed by Hadara is relatively basic, Filasto said. Experts who have analyzed the data say the company configured an open-source software called Squid to detect the blocked sites and redirect users. Squid was originally developed with funding from two US government agencies, but neither one has any control over its distribution today. Syria and Lebanon also use it for Web blocking, according to experts.
Squid’s West Bank debut indicates that while the Palestinian Authority may be more determined than before to censor the Internet, it is less willing to spend much time or money doing it, experts said. The software is free and easy to alter for censorship.
“It’s a pretty common approach,” says Danny O’Brien, Internet advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US press freedom group. “Instructing ISPs to block a few websites can be so tempting, and it’s usually how a government’s Web censorship program begins,” O’Brien says.
“The big problem is no one willingly hands over the list. It would provide a map of places the government doesn’t want to you to see. When you can’t see the list, there’s no accountability from the public.”
The new program’s timing may also embarrass the Palestinian Authority’s financial backers in the United States and European Union, both of which are considering legislation to curb the export of Western technologies used to censor political speech in the Middle East.
In Washington, a spokeswoman said the State Department was “concerned about any reports regarding the use of technologies to restrict access to information. The United States advocates Internet freedom.”
She pointed to a December 2011 speech in which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for stronger efforts on behalf of those “who are blocked from accessing entire categories of Internet content.”
Jared Malsin, Jenny Baboun and Nour Jubran contributed reporting.