The Web Being Walled Off Throughout The Middle East

In Egypt, the websites of the Huffington Post and Human Rights Watch aren’t available to most internet users. The Turkish government blocks more than 100,000 sites, including Wikipedia. In Saudi Arabia, a range of news sites linked to rivals Qatar and Iran are off limits. “My first thought was, ‘Welcome to China,’” said a banker in Cairo, recalling his attempt to access Mada Masr, Egypt’s leading independent news organisation, which has been blocked since June 2017. He asked to have his name withheld for fear of government reprisal. In recent weeks, Egypt’s Parliament has moved to cement online censorship in law, including legislation passed on Monday that gives the government the right to block social-media users and accounts that engage in any of some vaguely-defined violations such as “incitement to break the law.”

Authoritarian governments in the Middle East are increasingly adopting a version of China’s approach to online censorship, walling their citizens off from swaths of the internet and denying access to popular websites, often with the aid of Western technology. China had banned Facebook since 2009, two years before social media played an instrumental role in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. As a result, surfing the internet is often a more limited experience than people in the West are used to. Cairo, for example, has more than doubled the number of websites it blocks to an estimated 500 in the past year, according to watchdog groups. And the internet can differ considerably from place to place, depending on the priorities of people in power. “We’re starting to head toward a model where each country has its version of the internet,” said Alp Toker, the director of NetBlocks, a London-based organisation that tracks online censorship around the world.

Governments that see potential threats from the internet have long sought to spy on their citizens online, and Middle Eastern regimes have often cut off or slowed down the internet in times of stress. Egypt briefly shut down all internet access during the 2011 revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. Turkey has blocked and slowed social media repeatedly, including during the crackdown that followed the failed 2016 coup attempt. But as advanced technologies become more widely available on the open market, even countries without a large domestic tech industry are becoming increasingly sophisticated in targeting internet usage. Those technologies include deep packet inspection, which allows authorities to block, monitor, redirect and alter internet traffic, experts say.

According to Citizen Lab, an internet research group at the University of Toronto, Egypt is blocking websites with the help of devices whose digital fingerprint matches those of products sold by Sandvine, a firm based in Fremont, Calif., and Waterloo, Ontario. The company is one of the world’s largest providers of network management tools and a supplier to telecom giants such as Comcast Corp. Sandvine said it found some of Citizen Lab’s allegations to be “technically inaccurate and intentionally misleading,” but provided no further detail and said it is investigating the claims. Egyptian government officials declined to comment. Sandvine’s technology is designed for governments and corporations to engage in deep packet inspection. A former Sandvine engineer said the company rolled out a platform for network insights in Egypt in 2016. The engineer and Citizen Lab researchers say such platforms can be used for everything from cracking down on pirated video streams to surveillance and censorship. Sandvine listed Egypt’s National Telecom Regulatory Authority as a client in a now-deleted tweet from April 2018 seen by The Wall Street Journal. The company added at least five engineers and sales managers to its small Egyptian operations since 2016, according to employees’ LinkedIn profiles. Sandvine says it holds its business “to the highest standards” and has safeguards to ensure it adheres to “principles of social responsibility, human rights and privacy rights.” The company is owned by San Francisco-based private-equity firm Francisco Partners, which didn’t respond to requests to comment.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, meanwhile, blocked access in May 2017 to broadcaster Al Jazeera and other Qatari news sites in response to content they perceived as destabilising to their national interests. It was the first sign of an escalating Saudi-led campaign against Qatar. In Turkey, the authorities have carried out some of the region’s most extensive internet censorship, blocking an estimated 100,000 sites, although the list of censored sites is constantly shifting, making a hard count impossible, according to Mr Toker of NetBlocks. Egyptian authorities have also shut off access to tools that savvy internet users once relied on to circumvent online censorship, such as virtual private networks that mask a computer’s location. Egypt has become more sophisticated and ambitious in its online censorship as its current strongman, President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, consolidates power. The country’s online blacklist is constantly evolving and includes local and international news sites and advocacy groups like Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group, and Avaaz, an activist site.

Credit: Jared Malsin, Amira El Fekki, and Margherita Stancati for The Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2018.