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Opening the Middle East Internet

For millions around the world, the Internet is less a super-highway and more an obstacle course - complete with virtual hazards, roadblocks and detours. As more and more governments start filtering content - or blocking access outright - users are left with an Internet full of holes. Now there's a new anti-censorship tool - called alkasir - specifically designed for Middle East users. But is alkasir guilty of the same censorship it's trying to combat?

Walid al-Saqaf is a Ph.D. candidate at Sweden's Orebro University and the lead developer of alkasir. Recently VOA's Doug Bernard spoke with Mr. al-Saqaf via Skype.

Doug Bernard: Thanks for joining us; Mr. al-Saqaf, what is alkasir?

Walid al-Saqaf: It's my pleasure. Actually alkasir is an idea to focus on saving bandwidth. You may know that the Middle East is not one of those areas where Internet access is unhindered by obstacles of infrastructure, so bandwidth is a major issue to tackle here. And what alkasir does is it first maps what websites are being blocked and then allows access to those websites through its tunnel. It doesn't do blanket tunneling for all websites that are accessed through it, but it only access websites that are found to be blocked, and everything else goes through regular channels.

Doug Bernard: Now how is it exactly that it works? Is this an add-on you can add to a browser, or is it a program you have to download through the net?

Walid al-Saqaf: Actually it's a download; currently it's in its Windows versions, we plan on developing versions for other operating systems. And what it does is, once you have it installed on your computer, it grabs a copy of a list of the database regarding those websites that are found to be blocked in your country.

So once you get that list, then it simply places some sort of filter on your system, so whenever you open - through Firefox or Internet Explorer - a website, it checks to see 'is it on the list?' If it is on the list then it goes through the tunnel and you don't feel a thing, it just accesses the website as if it weren't blocked. But if it's not on the list of blocked websites in your country, it just goes through the regular channels. Which means that the proxy server is used exclusively to access blocked content - nothing else.

Doug Bernard: Now I understand you're employing something called targeted tunneling. What is that, because as I understand, this is not a tool that guarantees full and complete access to every blocked Internet site around the world.

Walid al-Saqaf: Indeed, there are certain policies that we adopted. We had either the opportunity or the choice to give it full access to all websites. And that would mean that we will have to get a huge budget, because of the fact that many of those blocked websites in the Middle East are pornography. And that constitutes the main, let's say sector of social blocking taking place in the Middle East.

However those who are interested in getting information about dissidents, about political activism, issues of human rights violations - those are also blocked. And these constitute target of our application. Because a lot of activist are not able to know whether there are protests, how do they coordinate, and there are a number of Arab countries, a few, that filter very important websites, such as Facebook and YouTube. And so alkasir is for those websites in particular.

Doug Bernard: Now one of the criticisms I've heard of theasir is that maybe it's replacing one form of censorship with another. In were talking about bandwidth vs. freedom; and yes, some of teh more salacious websites have have a lot higher bandwidth. Is it really a bandwidth decision that access to those isn't granted, or are there other concerns that are built into this as well?

Walid al-Saqaf: There are two major concerns. The first is bandwidth, and that is the technical aspect of it. However the other one is use of the program for certain content such as pornography. Because what is going on the Middle East is that, in order to bring people to it, in order to promote it, in order for people to use it, they need not to be associated with websites, or tools, that are known to access pornography. And that has been a problem for us.

It's been a dilemma because at the beginning when I wanted to market for a solution that would circumvent, I got some sort of threats and other forms of intimidation, saying that if you try to market this, it won't succeed because what you're giving now is a tool for everyone to access pornography. So I said 'OK, there's already so much being censored, let us start with one step at a time, let us begin with the political dissidents.' Let's begin with that and make sure everyone knows that not any more will you find access denied whenever you try to access YouTube, or Facebook, or a dissident website that you wanted to access.

So it's trying to slowly open a crack, you know? We can't open everything at once, because it could be risky for the team, and it won't serve us well in the long run. So what we're planning to do is make it a gradual process, have people gather around it, trust it, know that it works for accessing those websites, and then in the future, who knows? We could allow access to many more.

Doug Bernard: In the end, you will consider alkasir a success if what happens?

Walid al-Saqaf: If people don't worry any more that they won't be able to access their Facebook account, for example. If dissident activists are able to penetrate through the firewalls and publish information about protests happening next door or anywhere in the country where they are. If people who aren't able to have expensive solutions or VPN solutions to update their blogs that are censored, are able to do so freely and smoothly.

If I'm able to understand what is being blocked around the world, and the reasons and methods that are causing them to be blocked, that would a success, because alkasir is not only a tool for circumvention. Remember, it's also a tool for research, for mapping, for understanding what is blocked, and where. That is something unique about it that no other circumvention software had introduced.

You can hear much more news - live or on-demand - from the mideast on VOA's Middle East Monitor.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.