The U.S. has strongly supported freedom of the Internet and technology, which has played a crucial role in spreading and coordinating the protest movements sweeping through Arab countries. Yet American companies provide much of the technology that Middle East governments use to block websites, the Wall Street Journal reports.
For example, the California-headquartered McAfee Inc. provided Internet service providers in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait its content-filtering software. In conjunction with this filtering software, another California company, Blue Coat Systems Inc., sold hardware and technology in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar that also can block websites on its own.
"The culture that we have in the Middle East is much more conservative than in the U.S.," said Ahmed Aldoseri of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in Bahrain, which has filtered websites in an attempt to defuse the escalating protests. And the customers themselves are able to use the technology, for the most part, however they choose: "Obviously what an individual customer would do with a product once they acquire it is beyond our control," a McAfee spokesman told the Journal.
The State Department has spent more than $20 million "to fund software and technologies that help people in the Middle East circumvent Internet censorship that is sustained by Western technology," the Journal reported.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month reinforced the administration's push for freedom of expression and assembly online, calling for repressive regimes "to join us in the bet that we have made... that an open Internet will lead to stronger and more prosperous countries.... Open societies give rise to the most lasting progress." Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full impact of their people's yearnings for a while, but not forever, she said.