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
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
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
"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