Online censorship on rise in Middle East, North Africa

Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are investing in censorship tools at the same time as they expand their media infrastructure, according to a new study of online censorship.

Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are investing in censorship tools at the same time as they expand their media infrastructure, according to a new study of online censorship.

The OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a partnership of researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, found 14 of 18 countries surveyed in the regions used filtering technology to block internet access for political, religious or social reasons.

The report said the researchers found evidence that commercial products from Western technology companies are used to filter certain websites, block IP addresses and even exclude content from entire regions.

For example, ONI had earlier reported this year that two internet service providers in Yemen were using web filtering software from U.S.-based internet security firm Websense to block content as part of state-sponsored censorship.

Websense responded once informed of the censorship, saying it would block the ISPs from receiving further updates to their "block" lists, preventing them from adding any new sites.

Even the countries surveyed that don't use internet filtering to block content deemed objectionable — such as Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt — use other methods to censor dissidents, including surveillance and extra-legal harassment from security agencies, the report found.

Examples of internet filtering include the United Arab Emirates blocking websites hosted on Israel's .il domain and Qatar blocking online educational health content. Examples of surveillance include Saudi Arabia and Jordan installing video cameras in internet cafés.

The group tested about 2,000 websites in each country to see if and how their content might be blocked at the internet service provider level.

Role of technology companies to be examined

"More users in the Middle East and North Africa are using the internet for political campaigning and social activism; however, states continue to introduce more restrictive legal, technical and monitoring measures, amid growing local and regional calls to ease restrictions and remove barriers to the free flow of information," wrote ONI lead researcher Helmi Noman.

ONI is a partnership between the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Program (University of Cambridge), and the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford.

The issue of online censorship and the involvement of technology companies attracted global attention last month when Iran was accused of reportedly blocking some communications and websites and following some types of communication with the help of call-monitoring technology created by Nokia Siemens Networks.

Nokia denied it was involved in online web censorship but said it had provided the Iranian government with lawful intercept technology to monitor local voice calls within the country.

The Citizen Lab, which runs out of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies, announced last month it would examine how closely companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo follow their own principles regarding freedom of expression and privacy.

In October 2008, Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. were all signatories — along with several human rights groups — of the Global Network Initiative. That group aims to develop agreed-upon and voluntary principles to protect human rights in the information and communications technology sector, even as the companies face pressure from governments to comply with domestic laws and policies that may limit those rights.