Sell Out: Blocking an Open Net

Globalism ought to be a counterforce, democratizing the world and spreading technological and economic equality. Too often, it isn’t. Take, for example, the corporatist American and European companies happily selling blocking software to countries like China and Saudi Arabia so their governments can pervert the Net to deny their citizens basic freedoms. This is a significant blow to the notion that technology will forge a more open world. And it might not be all that distant a threat. We have plenty of zealots and fanatics right here, all itching for a model way of blocking a free Net.

Globalism ought to be a counterforce, democratizing the world and spreading technological and economic equality. Too often, it isn’t. Take, for example, the corporatist American and European companies happily selling blocking software to countries like China and Saudi Arabia so their governments can pervert the Net to deny their citizens basic freedoms. This is a significant blow to the notion that technology will forge a more open world. And it might not be all that distant a threat. We have plenty of zealots and fanatics right here, all itching for a model way of blocking a free Net.

Governments in Muslim nations, as well as China, have repeatedly made overtures to and done business with Net-filtering companies. But no nation has used blocking software as vigorously as Saudi Arabia, according to the New York Times. By royal decree, virtually all public Internet traffic to and from the kingdom has been funneled through a single control center outside Riyadh since the Net was first introduced there three years ago. If the Riyadh center blocks a site, a warning appears in both English and Arabic: “Access to the requested URL is not allowed!” Saudi Arabia blocks sex and pornography sites, as well as those relating to religion and human rights.

Now nearly a dozen software companies, most American, are competing for a hefty new contract to help block access to even more sites the Saudi government deems inappropriate for its country’s half-million Net users. In fact, the Saudi government is helping to pioneer something once thought impossible — a sanitized Net for an entire nation and culture.

American software companies are only too happy to help them do it. Software executives say they are only providing politically neutral tools. “Once we sell them the product, we can’t enforce how they use it,” Matthew Holt, a sales executive for San Jose’s Secure Computing, told the Times earlier this week. Secure provides filtering software to the Saudi government under a contract that expires in 2003. The Saudi government is also reportedly talking with Websense, SurfControl and N2H2 of Seattle.

The Saudi government has already spent a fortune to design its centralized control system before permitting Net use a few years ago, selecting Secure Computing’s Smart Filter software from four competing U.S. products. SmartFilter came with ready-made blocking categories like pornography and gambling and was also customized to exclude sites the Saudis perceived as bad for Islam, the royal family, or the country’s political positions.

This is a radical assault on the spirit of the Net, of its open, point-to-point design, its great promise to democratize information. By allies, no less. And don’t for a minute think there aren’t plenty of fanatics and zealots in the United States who won’t love the idea as well. Remember that the Harry Potter series is now the most banned book series in American libraries.

The Saudi government, along with other non-democratic countries, are notoriously technophobic. They are eager to participate in the emerging global economy, but desperate to stanch the free flow of information that might provide diverse information to their citizens. And they have no problem finding software companies, including American ones, that are happy to help extend censorship. The corporatist rule is simple — maximize profits at all costs under virtually all circumstances.

Countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China have been surprisingly successful at wiring up certain segments of their societies while controlling information deemed insensitive for political or religious reasons. The Net can, in fact, be used to make money and suppress freedom. These governments have undercut the great promise of globalism, prosperity, technology and democracy, allowing corrupt and anti-democratic governments to prosper, in part by censoring information — something many of us thought the Net would make impossible.

This highlights the menacing way corporatism exploits technology, undermining the most basic American values.

“We have a really serious problem in terms of the American free speech idea,” says Jack Balkin, a Yale Law School professor who specializes in the politics of Internet filtering. “But it is very American to make money. Between anti-censorship and the desire to make money, the desire to make money will win out.” This is a profound blow to the whole idea of using technology — especially the Net — to force a more open society.

That’s a bitter indictment of a nation that purports to be advancing democracy throughout the world, that’s supposedly fighting a war to protect freedom. The reason money will always win out is corporatism, which subverts almost every other value in the name of profit, and which has made globalism a dirty word.

Author: Jon Katz

News Service: Slashdot.org

URL: http://slashdot.org/features/01/11/20/1651259.shtml

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