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Yemenis Should Be Incensed At Websense 93

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the not-the-worst-of-their-problems dept.
Slashdot regular Bennett Haselton writes "Websense, a US-based Internet-censoring software maker, claims not to sell to foreign governments that are censoring Internet access for all of their citizens. But the OpenNet Initiative reports that national ISPs in Yemen have been using Websense to filter Internet access for at least the past four years. Will Websense revoke their license? And what would happen then?" Update: 08/10 21:01 GMT by KD : Bennett adds, "After the story ran, Websense sent me this update." "Since we were informed about the potential use of our products by Yemeni ISPs based on government-imposed Internet restrictions in Yemen, we have investigated this potential non-compliance with our anti-censorship policy. Because our product operates based on a database system, we are able to block updated database downloads to locations and to end users where the use of our product would violate law or our corporate policies. We believe that we have identified the specific product subscriptions that are being used for Web filtering by ISPs in Yemen, and in accordance with our policy against government-imposed censorship, we have taken action to discontinue the database downloads to the Yemeni ISPs."

The Internet censoring software maker Websense has a published policy on their website against allowing their software to be used for government-mandated censorship:

Websense does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in any sort of government-imposed censorship. Any government-mandated censorship projects will not be engaged by Websense. If Websense does win a business and later discovers that the government is requiring all of its national ISPs to engage in censorship of the Web and Web content, we will remove our technology and capabilities from the project.

This supposedly differentiates the company from competitors such as Smartfilter (now owned by McAfee), which according to OpenNet Initiative reports, is used to censor the Internet in several African and Middle Eastern countries including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Sudan. Websense once enthusiastically competed for the contract to censor Internet access in Saudi Arabia, but has now apparently ceded such markets to Smartfilter.

However, according to the ONI, the two national ISPs in the country of Yemen are using Websense to censor Internet access for all users. The researchers found that some sites are blocked in Yemen that are probably not on Websense's original filtering list, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party, as well as sites that are blocked under standard Websense categories, such as pornography, sex education materials, and "anonymizing and privacy tools" (presumably, proxy sites).

Websense declined to tell me whether they have ever revoked an ISP's license to use Websense after discovering that the ISP was using it in violation of their anti-government-censorship policy. They also declined to say whether they had any ISP customers in Middle Eastern countries, apart from Yemen. (For any Middle Eastern ISP using Websense, there's a high probability that they would be doing it as a result of a government mandated filtering policy, and hence in violation of Websense's stated rules.) But regarding the use of Websense in Yemen, Websense did reply to say simply, "We will look into the matter. If our software is being used in violation of our policy, we will take appropriate action." I think that if they were serious about preventing their software from being used for government censorship, they should have red-flagged any purchase from a national ISP in a country with one of the worst press-freedom ratings in the world, but better late than never.

There are only about 200,000 Internet users in Yemen, compared to over six million in Saudi Arabia, millions more in other censored Middle Eastern countries, and 300 million in Internet-censored China. (And even the Yemenis' Internet access is not filtered all the time, since the ONI report says that the number of concurrent licenses for Websense purchased by the Yemeni ISPs is less than the number of Yemeni Internet users, and when the number of concurrent users exceeds the number of licenses, all requests go through unfiltered!) So it would be a small step towards global liberation of the Internet, but still equivalent to de-censoring Internet access for every resident of Boise if the city had 100% broadband penetration, which is enough to justify putting the squeeze on Websense.

What exactly would happen if Websense did revoke their license for the Yemeni ISPs? They couldn't force the ISPs to uninstall the software, but they could stop allowing them to download further updates to the Websense blocked-site list. Most installations of Websense are configured to download updates to the list every day, to block the latest adult websites as well as to try and stay ahead of newly released proxy sites. Once the list updates stopped, all existing blocked websites would remain blocked, but newly created adult sites and proxy sites would be accessible, and the filtering would gradually become less and less effective. So it would be a concrete victory for Yemeni Internet users, and not just a symbolic gesture.

How would we know if Websense went through with it, anyway, if they refuse to confirm or deny that they have revoked the licenses for Yemen? The ONI declined to tell me how exactly they determined that Yemeni ISPs were using Websense. (Not that I mind; they could have obtained this information with the help of people whose jobs and freedom would be at stake if they were found out, in which case ONI would not be able to share their confidential sources.) Presumably the ONI could repeat their research in the future to determine if Websense were still being used. However, even if they can see that Websense software is still being used to censor the Internet, it may not be easy to tell whether the Yemeni ISPs are still downloading updates to the blocked-site list. My suggestion: Create a new proxy site and don't publicize it anywhere, but report it to Websense for blocking. Test a few days later to verify that it's blocked by Websense, but not by Smartfilter or other popular blocking programs. Then see if it's blocked in Yemen as well. If not, then hopefully that means that Websense cut them off.

And then what? Maybe the Yemeni ISPs will just continue using Websense with a frozen copy of the blocked site list, reasoning that most of the well-known adult sites that users are going to try to visit, are probably already on that list. Maybe they'll set up a shell company in another country, posing as an ISP requesting a legitimate copy of Websense, and buy a new list subscription that way. But it will still be worth it to press Websense into revoking their license, even if it only breaks Internet censorship in Yemen for a few months or a year. At that point, perhaps they'll just take their business to Smartfilter like almost every other Middle Eastern country that censors the Internet.

After all, we shouldn't pick on Websense too much, when Smartfilter is censoring national Internet access for about 100 times that many users in total. If Websense says they don't provide software to government censors, then we should hold them to that. But the real scandal isn't that American censorware companies provide filters to censoring governments while claiming not to, it's that American companies are doing it at all.

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Yemenis Should Be Incensed At Websense

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  • by syntap (242090) on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:05PM (#29011753)

    They won't see this.

    • by Em Emalb (452530)

      this isn't flamebait, it's funny, truthful, and probably more insightful than the mod who moderated it flamebait thinks.

    • by poetmatt (793785)

      sad, but accurate.

      Websense filters are both inaccurate and shitty. However, they sell themselves off as a very US-friendly enterprise/corporate friendly filter solution, which is the only reason they are still around. Apparently people don't know about what openDNS can do for free (and safer).

      • by mpe (36238)
        Websense filters are both inaccurate and shitty. However, they sell themselves off as a very US-friendly enterprise/corporate friendly filter solution, which is the only reason they are still around.

        How much of this is applicable to this entire industry? Especially selling to management who don't realise their claims are at best dubious.
        • by poetmatt (793785)

          I'd guess there are very few who don't, and those ones are smart enough to not have to invest in crap like websense.

      • Yea but the problem is open source in the work place is usually not going to happen. Especially not when a grubby little company like Websense gets their mits on it.

        We use websense here @ where I work (I'm a network administrator for a large gov't WAN and Websense is totally terrible. Granted it blocks important sites like .gov but blocks google sometimes, but still.......

      • However, for a country where they would rather block access to content that might maybe possibly be objectionable, shitty and inaccurate filters are OK. Having lived in Saudi Arabia, they operate under the same assumption-more censorship is rarely a bad thing. And while merely going through an outside proxy is a quick and easy fix, WS is surprisingly deft at blocking access to those as well. So unless random Yemeni person knows someone who can regularly email them lists of proxies they're pretty much SOL.
        • by poetmatt (793785)

          There are mailing lists for this, and websense does not catch them.

          Websense doesn't even check subdomains, they just block an entire domain and let all the possibly legitimate stuff underneath get blocked.

          Example: blogspot, wordpress are blocked, instant messengers are blocked, but yahoo.com is not.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Please, when did a corporation last value principles over profits?

    Anonymouse Cynical Coward

    • Please, when did a corporation last value principles over profits?

      They are surely a corporation of principles. Yemen was just... filtering to... protect their children. Please, won't somebody please think of the children!?

    • Please, when did a corporation last value principles over profits?

      When they found out they could be sued [out-law.com] over it.

  • by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster.man@gWELTYmail.com minus author> on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:12PM (#29011885)

    So are the ISPs blocking because they have their own cultural objection to the content, or is the government requesting it? It says national ISP, so the question is how much oversight the government has, and if there are alternative ISPs.

    More information, please.

    • TeleYemen seems to be the main ISP, and there are a few other very small VSAT and broadband providers.

      If there is gov't oversight, controlling one ISP would make things easier.

      I'd guess there is, with a (dead) link to the president's website right on their main page: http://www.y.net.ye/ [y.net.ye]

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Regardless of the formal arrangement, the ISPs in Yemen are government controlled.

      More detail in the Global Integrity Report: Yemen
      http://report.globalintegrity.org/Yemen/2008/scorecard/7 [globalintegrity.org]

  • <Flamebait>I know that nobody reads the stories, but...Would it be too much to ask for a single link that leads to the story in the portion that shows on the front page? The brief blurb has no link, but the full story has so many (and mainly pointless) links that it's impossible to find it. Unless there isn't a story and this is just random blathering.</Flamebait>

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      by Ant P. (974313)

      Would it be too much to ask for a single link that leads to the story in the portion that shows on the front page?

      Click the "Read More" link.

  • Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lazarian (906722) on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:14PM (#29011917)
    You'd think that they'd be more pissed at their government for censoring and controlling their access to the net.

    Oh yeah. Websense is an American company. Damn evil Americans!

  • Where's the link? (Score:5, Informative)

    by R2.0 (532027) on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:14PM (#29011925)

    Oh, wait - it's 1/3 of the way down the voluminous post. Which has (un)surprisingly little content.

    From TFA (after I found it)

    "The ISP YemenNet continues to have an issue with its filtering system; ONI investigation found that the ISP uses a Blue Coat integrated cache/filter appliance to run Websense but possesses a limited number of concurrent user licenses--not nearly enough to cover all of the Internet users in the country. Thus, when the number of subscribers accessing the Internet at a given time exceeds the limited number of user licenses, the requests of all users circumvent the filtering software.

    Is it possible they simply bought the Blue Coat appliances which came prepackaged with the software?

    Oh, and editors, ffs, EDIT!

    • I have to agree re Editors please do your job - this is an interesting story, but christ did it need so much fluff in it? get to the point already! Just cause someone is a regular contributor doesn't mean their words are sacred!
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by jittles (1613415)

      "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." A. Carlson

      They can. Haven't you ever seen Air Force One? It has been flying them all over the world since 1990.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by hicks107 (1286642)
      Not really because the WS license requires an annual renewal. So even if they accidentally bought the appliance with Websense, they would have to actively be renewing the license.
      • by R2.0 (532027)

        "Not really because the WS license requires an annual renewal. So even if they accidentally bought the appliance with Websense, they would have to actively be renewing the license."

        Legally requires, or the software stops working?

  • by AndrewNeo (979708)

    When I first read the summary, I was thinking, what does the Office of Naval Intelligence have to do with this?

  • Proxy (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:16PM (#29011941)

    My office uses Websense. As annoying as it is, all you have to do to get around it is set a proxy in your web browser. In this case, the proxy just needs to be located outside of Yemen.

    • Also, many programs like ultrasurf and gtunnel work quite well, so you don't even have to search for those proxies. The problem is, your average user doesn't know that, and will not acquire the knowledge easily (websense and others like it can block most sites that link to/advertise proxies, too... you have to already have some knowledge of it).
  • Blame the country (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mendoksou (1480261) on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:17PM (#29011953)
    Having operated under a rather oppressive form of websense at college for years, I have very little love for the company. But this still seems like a case of over-extending the blame. Sure, they are probably more evil than they want to pretend, but at least they bother pretending; which is more than I can say for some.

    I think I'll reserve judgment until more facts are out, especially Websense's next step. If they actually do uphold their anti-censorship statement, then props to them; they'll be the least annoying filtering software in the market, which is not saying a whole lot.
  • In US, ISPs may not be the ones filtering Internet content, but filtered it is - by lawsuits, employers who fire for facebook pages, and vigilantes jumping at any lapse of political correctness. I am sure the parties involved this the content is as offending as Yemenes consider porn.

    • And the difference is largely (but not solely) one of jurisdiction, influence, and workarounds, rather than any principles or the lack thereof.

  • "What exactly would happen if Websense did revoke their license for the Yemeni ISPs?"

    Free, unfiltered, unfettered access to the rest of the world? Freedom for people to determine their own paths?

    Why on earth would the Yemen(ese?) government want that for its citizens?

    Control=power.

  • Why would they care? (Score:4, Informative)

    by DesScorp (410532) <DesScorp.Gmail@com> on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:25PM (#29012081) Homepage Journal

    Considering that Yemeni's live on an average of $1.25 a day, most of them don't even have access to the Internet. And since it's a vary traditional Muslim country, many would applaud filtering out "harmful foreign content". The author is applying his own feelings and standards to a very different people and culture.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by R2.0 (532027)

      "The author is applying his own feelings and standards to a very different people and culture."

      No, the author is applying his own feelings and standards to the company that make Websense.The rant has little to do with Yemeni censorship and much to do with how Websense is going against their corporate policy. Of course, they may not even be aware of the Yemeni ISP's use, since it came as part of a 3rd party appliance, but that's irrelevant.

      Repeat after me:
      "US Bad"
      "Everywhere Else good, unless bad. In which

    • by Toonol (1057698)
      Yeah, the Yemeni's don't need free speech. Their culture and social heritage simply don't require western concepts such as freedom. The idea that individuals should be free is really just evil western oppression, if you think really hard about it. Different races and cultures obviously have different levels of optimal liberty.

      No; wait; you're an ass.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Entropius (188861)

        It's frightening how many people believe this -- that, just because someone is a member of some traditionalist culture that believes (for instance) women should be subservient, it's okay for their government to jail them for speaking their mind.

        Restrictive traditionalist cultures *can* still exist in countries where civil liberties are (nominally) respected. The first example that comes to mind is the Amish in the US.

    • The author is applying his own feelings and standards to a very different people and culture.

      Hear hear.

      I'm not familiar with what's going on in Yemen, but what you describe is something that many, many people in the west do, which results in many many fuck-ups.

  • when the number of concurrent users exceeds the number of licenses, all requests go through unfiltered

    I think this is configurable. When all the Websense licences are in use at my office, all requests get blocked.

    • Right, but why would an ISP want to block internet access to its users?

      • by ae1294 (1547521)

        Because upgrading the upstream pipe from 14.4Kbps to 33.6Kbps would require the Yemenis ISP to take out a small loan at a 'very' high interest rape from the WTO...

        But in reality, all ISP's would like to censor traffic as 'Less load + more consumers = Greater Profit'. If ISP's had their way we would all have the old netzero type ad bar on our screens while every mistyped web domain would take you to their sponsors web site all the while making sure you never exceed 1GB a month on your 100Mbit/100Mbit connec

        • Ummm....ok.

          I was referring to the main post made that once the ISP's number of active users went over the limit of their WebSense subscription, users over that limit had fully unblocked website access.

          Zed made a comment that Websense can be reconfigured so that if you go over the user limit, users over that limit have all requests blocked (as in, all internet access blocked).

          I commented on the fact that it was against their interest to block internet access to their customers.

          You made a silly rant, and need

      • Good question. For that matter, why would a company want to block internet access to its employees? In our case I believe it was just the default setting and nobody thought to check. All I'm saying is, let's think twice before DDoS-ing Yemen's Websense servers in the name of freedom.
  • by kaizendojo (956951) on Monday August 10, 2009 @12:29PM (#29012135)

    Websense, a U.S.-based Internet censoring software maker

    Websense, a U.S. based Internet filtering software maker

    There. Fixed that for you. Websense doesn't *censor*, that is left up to the individual admins who purchase the product. They take great pains to make sure that the software doesn't censor by using actual real human beings to categorize their list of websites and peer review to make sure that they agree on the categories assigned. THAT IS ALL THEY DO. The purchasers decide what categories they want to turn off or on. And as the product is OEM in a number of appliances, it is quite possible they are not aware of it's use in Yemen.

    Disclaimer: I appeared in a promo video for Websense when they first started out; I was a big fan of the product for use in a private school setting precisely because it *wasn't* like all the other filtering software out there and censorship was a major issue with the students there.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by arth1 (260657)

      When Websense's sole and advertised use is blocking and logging access by bias, I don't think calling it "filtering software" instead of "censoring software" makes much of an improvement.
      Sure, you can call cigarettes "plant fiber cylinders" too, but that doesn't make them any healthier.

      • by hercubus (755805)

        When Websense's sole and advertised use is blocking and logging access by bias, I don't think calling it "filtering software" instead of "censoring software" makes much of an improvement. Sure, you can call cigarettes "plant fiber cylinders" too, but that doesn't make them any healthier.

        not saying filters aren't stupid/evil, cause they are. bits want to be free and all that

        but the word "filter" seems to fit better than censor. the internet is still there after all, no websites were confiscated. no one was jailed for publishing. there is no armed authority forcing the removal of the bits from existence

        if you're behind this filter that Websense makes you can't see what others can, like if you were behind a red light filter, there would be certain frequencies you can't see anymore. i

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mpe (36238)
      Websense, a U.S. based Internet filtering software maker
      There. Fixed that for you. Websense doesn't *censor*, that is left up to the individual admins who purchase the product.


      As much as they can within the limitations of the product.

      They take great pains to make sure that the software doesn't censor by using actual real human beings to categorize their list of websites and peer review to make sure that they agree on the categories assigned.

      If they actually did this you might end up with something usa
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by LanMan04 (790429)

      Let me be the first to say BULLSHIT on the peer review part.

      The reason for this is that many admins simply subscribe to the Websense-provided "list" of naughty sites (in various categories). My office uses Websense, and the admins subscribe to the list. Care to explain how docs.google.com got on the block list in the "Internet Telephony" category? Cause it sure as hell wasn't our admins...

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by kaizendojo (956951)
        I'll repeat it for those who didn't get it the first time; Websense doesn't censor anything; it merely categorizes. Admins are then free to check or uncheck entire categories or go as granular as a site level. If your admins are lazy and check everything, don't blame Websense, blame your HR department or CIO.

        As far as docs.google.com being on the internet telephony category, did you or your admins contact Websense to find out why it was miscategorized or did you just stay silent? (BTW, it "sure as hell

        • by LanMan04 (790429)

          I complained to our admins about docs.google.com, they said they were unsure how it got blocked because they'd never used the site/entered it into the system, and promptly unblocked it. Unless they're lying, the "peer reviewed" lists are a bit lame. I'll come back with more examples of bizarre blocks in the future (as I run into them). And yes, I know they pick categories (or not) as they choose; I was talking about the contents of said categories.

        • docs.google.com shows up currently in the category "Personal Network Storage and Backup." Seems quite accurate to me.
          Requires a valid subscription to see, but https://www.websense.com/sitelookup [websense.com] does allow administrators to test categories and report categorised URLs to the human review team. It is also available in the installed product, so admins don't even have to go out of their way.
  • filtering of the intertubes is done globally to silence anyone that goes against the status quo or against any government dissent, oh well so much for that free speech thing in the bill of rights
  • Stopping updates (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    They couldn't force the ISPs to uninstall the software, but they could stop allowing them to download further updates to the Websense blocked-site list. Most installations of Websense are configured to download updates to the list every day, to block the latest adult websites as well as to try and stay ahead of newly released proxy sites. Once the list updates stopped, all existing blocked websites would remain blocked, but newly created adult sites and proxy sites would be accessible, and the filtering wou

  • Just a quick note on the way the WS install would handle the database download failures. There is a possibility that the downloads would stop. Short of a manual download and implementation, this could prove effective in disabling the filtering in a matter of weeks. Websense filtering stops to function as designed when the database becomes 'stale', or is older than 2 weeks. At that point, the logs continue to function, as they would normally, but the filtering halts. If Websense does indeed revoke the licens
  • There content filtering sucks like a fucking HOOVER!!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    In Soviet Russia, Websense fil....

    Umm wait, darn it, lemme figure this out. Carry on.

  • "Yemenis Should Be Incested At Websense"

    and I was all wtf??? But still, the choice of wording in the headline is AWESOME ;)

  • I guess they've terminated of the contracts with Australian ISPs then, right?

  • Will the Yemeni ISP get a refund on their subscription now that Websense has blocked access to updates?

Whenever a system becomes completely defined, some damn fool discovers something which either abolishes the system or expands it beyond recognition.

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