While the US government has been feverishly advocating democracy in the Middle East, several US internet companies known for helping filter web traffic have been found selling to the governments of Bahrain, Yemen, Qatar and other countries.
The role of new mass media technologies in the wave of uprisings that have rocked the Middle East has by now been well documented. Egypt’s revolution started with a Facebook page, and Cairo even resorted to blocking access to the Internet in an attempt to quell the riots.
Lyle Stewart, an activist and journalist for The Nation magazine, says that social networking sites “have been absolutely crucial in terms of organizing the mass demonstrations that have been sweeping through country after country, beginning in Tunisia,” he said. “We have to recall that these countries do not have the same level of free media that we in the West have enjoyed for a long time. The advance of the new technologies that allow thousands of people to communicate at a push of a button has made the organization of these mass movements and contesting entrenched rulers a lot easier.”
US State Secretary Hillary Clinton has said American companies need to take a principled stand against censorship, and that it “should not be accepted by any company from anywhere.”
The result has been that some US companies are now acting against the official position of their own government.
Thus, US computer software company McAfee Inc., acquired last month by Intel Corp., has provided content-filtering software used by Internet service providers in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, according to the Wall Street Journal. Blue Coat Systems Inc. has sold hardware and technology in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar that has been used in conjunction with McAfee’s Web-filtering software and sometimes to block websites on its own.
“They are all doing the same thing: Using technologies that were once used in schools or libraries to stop people from looking at pornographic sites, which could be a defensible act – now they are being used to censor the free flow of information,” said Stewart.
For people in the Middle East, it takes much more courage to speak against their regimes than for people in the West, continued Stewart. But even if you get online and reach your rather restricted audience, there is the other edge of the sword – the government is also online, and can mine internet records to build a profile against any person.
“The ironic thing is that in the Middle East, where people are advocating so strongly for democracy, we in the West are letting our government spy on us, we are letting them in many cases control the things we cannot see,” Stewart said. “We in the West have a lot of waking up to do, and it is interesting that the people in the streets in the Middle East are showing us the way.”
While the software companies cannot be held responsible for stifling free speech in the Middle East, as they cannot exercise control of how their customers use their products, it is perhaps time to stake a new position on the software technologies trade. If in order to sell weapons to a country you need to verify their intended purpose, doing the same might be appropriate for those selling web-filtering technologies.
“If [the software companies] did not know before, they surely know now,” said Emilio Viano, a professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington. “And that is why ethically it is certainly difficult for them to continue maintaining that ‘we were in the dark regarding these possibilities.’ Certainly they argue, ‘Look, we made a product, we sold it, but we are not responsible how it is used. I can sell you a car and you might one day kill yourself or somebody with it.’ It is a hot ethical debate whether a person making something available for orders is also responsible for the misuse of the item.”
“What Wilileaks did and what is now happening in the Middle East and in North Africa shows that we have really entered the internet era, the cybernetic era. It will completely change our lives, as we have seen concretely in these movements,” declared Viano.