Mixed Signals: The United States and Internet Freedom in the Middle East
April 27, 2011
In the battle for internet freedom in the Middle East, the United States is fighting on both sides.
On the one hand, democracy advocates train here. The Congressionally-funded National Democratic Institute recently helped develop “Aswat,” a web portal for Arab dissidents. The U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute has led similar initiatives, training over 1,000 Egyptians to employ social media during political campaigns. In March 2010, the director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy traveled to Washington, D.C. for an intensive course on social media, and later that year, his organization used social media to document government-sponsored election fraud during Egypt’s November elections.
Yet, U.S. companies are also supplying much of the technology used for internet censorship. Boeing-owned, California-based Narus provides Telecom Egypt and Saudi Telecom with “deep packet inspection” software, which enables online eavesdropping and location detection. Syrian ISPs have adapted Squid, an open-source software package funded by the National Science Foundation, to block opposition web content, while five GCC states use U.S.-produced McAfee SmartFilter Technology to block unwanted websites, including those that express political dissent.
This mixed messaging goes all the way to the top. Secretary Clinton has called for a “global commitment to internet freedom”; yet Republicans complain that the State Department has not yet spent the $30 million Congress appropriated in 2009 to combat internet censorship.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.