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Companies Compete to Provide Saudi Internet Veil

early a dozen software companies, most of them American, are competing for a contract to help Saudi Arabia block access to Web sites the Saudi government deems inappropriate for that nation's half- million Internet users.

For the companies, the Saudi account would be important not only for the direct revenue which analysts say could be worth several million dollars but also for its value as a flagship that could help win similar contracts from other governments.

Pornographic sites, the biggest Internet business in other countries, make up the overwhelming majority of the sites blocked in Saudi Arabia, distantly followed by sites that may be sensitive for political or religious reasons.

To critics of the sale of content filters, software company executives say that they are only providing politically neutral tools. "Once we sell them the product, we can't enforce how they use it," said Matthew Holt, a sales executive for Secure Computing , of San Jose, Calif., that currently provides Internet-filtering software to the Saudi government under a contract that expires in 2003.

Secure Computing hopes to renew that contract but has competition from at least 10 other companies from the United States, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

"This would be a terrific deal to win an important deal to win," said Geoff Haggart, a vice president at Websense , a San Diego company that has begun a software trial with the Saudi government and is considered a top contender for its contact.

Websense's current clients include more than half of the Fortune 500 companies, the United States Army and Saudi Aramco, the large Saudi oil company. Other software that Saudi Arabia has considered includes products from Surf Control, a London company; N2H2, of Seattle; and Symantec, a Cupertino, Calif., company.

Within the Islamic world, religious sensitivities and security-conscious regimes can combine to create a technophobic atmosphere. Governments in Muslim nations, among them Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, have made overtures to Internet filtering companies. But no Muslim nation has been as active a user of the software as has Saudi Arabia. By royal decree, virtually all public Internet traffic to and from Saudi Arabia has been funneled through a single control center outside Riyadh since the Internet was introduced in the kingdom nearly three years ago.

If the Riyadh center blocks a site, a warning screen pops up warning the user, in English and Arabic, "Access to the requested URL is not allowed!"

"The Internet is a frightening place to some people," said Mr. Holt, who oversees sales operations in the Middle East for Secure Computing. "The government feels the need to intervene."

In Saudi Arabia, the government spent two years designing a centralized control system before gingerly opening the spigot to the Internet in February 1999. At the time, the government selected Secure Computing's SmartFilter software from four competing products from the United States, in part because the company offered a discount. The company and Saudi officials declined to disclose the contract terms.

SmartFilter came with ready-made categories like pornography and gambling and was customized to include specific sites the Saudis perceived as defaming Islam.

With the Secure Computing contract set to expire in little more than a year, rivals are actively courting Saudi technology officials. The companies are promoting their expanded Arabic-language capabilities. They are selling their ease of customization for sites considered anti-Islam. They are donating engineers to support trials, while steeply discounting their list prices. One German company even offered the service for free, according to an executive involved in the competition.

Corporate customers and the United States Army generally use filtering software to prevent their users from viewing pornography, gambling or otherwise frittering away time on the job. But Saudi Arabia is one of the countries with the most centralized control of Internet content of various types, according to a report by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Another country highlighted in the report is China, whose government blocks various foreign media and human rights Web sites by using domestic software. The United States government recently introduced a plan to establish a computer network to help Chinese residents circumvent their government's fire wall. But so far, Washington has not taken similar steps in Saudi Arabia, which brooks little political dissent but is one of the United States' closest allies among Middle Eastern Muslim nations.

"We have a really serious problem in terms of the American free speech idea," said Jack Balkin, a professor at the Yale Law School who studies the politics of Internet filtering. "But it is very American to make money. Between anticensorship and the desire to make money, the desire to make money will win out."

It is because filtering for an entire country is a logistically tricky task that the Saudi government is looking for new software. "It's not that we are unhappy with the product, we're just looking for a better solution," said Eyas S. al-Hajery, who plays a major role in the selection process and has evaluated various software filters.

The competition is up in the air, said Dr. Hajery, who directs the Information Security Center at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the institution that serves as Saudi Arabia's Internet control valve. "We are very open to try other choices," he said.

The marketing pitches pour in weekly through e-mails, phone calls and in-person presentations. But the decision will have less to do with marketing than customer service after the sale, Dr. Hajery said.

Customer service is important because Saudi Arabia's filtering effort is so large in scope and so highly customized. The Saudi Internet staff says it tries to be reasonable within the guidelines, and it provides Web forms for users to request additions or removals from the blacklists.

Dr. Hajery says his staff of a dozen employees receives more than 500 suggestions a day from the public to block sites that the authorities have missed. The requests are reviewed by the staff and about half of them are ultimately added to the blacklist up to 7,000 URL's monthly. Many of the sites forbidden on religious grounds are gleaned through this process, since the staff members are primarily focused on ferreting out pornography sites, Dr. Hajery said. The center also receives more than 100 requests a day to remove specific sites from the blacklist many because they have been wrongfully characterized by the SmartFilter software, he said.

Secure Computing disputes this, saying that all of its sites are reviewed by people after being screened by the software.

Some sites become incidental victims to the government's broad snare. In August 2000, the Saudi government decided to block access to all Yahoo online clubs because many clubs were popular for pornography. After the move elicited protest from people who use various Yahoo clubs to communicate about everything from engineering to cooking, the center began selectively unblocking non pornographic Yahoo sites at users' requests.

Source: The New York Times



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