Automated filters block legitimate websites

The country's internet regulator has admitted that legitimate news and blogging sites have been blocked inappropriately by censorship technology.

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The country's internet regulator has admitted that legitimate news and blogging sites have been blocked inappropriately by censorship technology designed to filter out offensive material. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said the website for the Arab Times, a daily newspaper in Kuwait, was accidentally blocked by Etisalat's automated filtering software. And the website of one of the UAE's most influential blogs, Mujarad Ensan (Just a Man), is no longer viewable by Etisalat subscribers in the UAE, although the TRA and the national telecommunications operator cannot say why. Under the TRA's internet access management policy, internet service providers must prevent access to online content that contravenes any of 13 prohibited categories. They include anything likely to offend public interest, public morality, public order, public and national security, national harmony, and Islam. First published in 1977, the Arab Times says it is Kuwait's leading English-language daily newspaper. Its readers in the UAE recently alerted the company that they were no longer able to access its website. "We really don't publish anything that would affect relations with other countries," said an Arab Times staff member. Although the company's Arabic-language sister publication, Al Seyassah, has had occasional brushes with censors in the region, the blocking was a first for the English paper, he added. The website has the same page name as an Arabic-language publication from the US that airs controversial views that frequently displease governments in the Middle East. The automated filtering system had been programmed to block the US publication, a TRA spokesman said, but it also accidentally blocked the Kuwaiti publication. The TRA asked Etisalat to unblock the Kuwait-based website and it was available yesterday. Mujarad Ensan was blocked on Oct 12 after a posting titled "Let's laugh together: our economy is doing well", in which the author expressed scepticism that the UAE was immune to the global economic crisis. A posting on Oct 11 said that the UAE economy was closely linked to the rest of the world: "I do not know the extent of the crisis affecting the global economy, but I know we lack transparency and I believe we do not live on an island." The site was blocked on Oct 12 and was still unavailable yesterday. The TRA said it was investigating why the site was blocked. "The TRA did not require Etisalat or du to block this particular website. Both companies have the right to block a site if they think it is in breach of the internet access management policy." If website owners feel that their sites have been blocked unfairly, they can file an appeal with the internet service provider, the TRA said. The provider then has 48 hours to decide whether to unblock the site, or refer it to the TRA for a decision. Etisalat officials said it was unfair for foreign media to use the blocking of Mr Ensan's blog as an example of censorship in the UAE. "There is freedom of speech here, and at Etisalat we don't interfere with the issue. There aren't really any restrictions on what you can say on the internet," a spokesman said. The proprietor of Mujarad Ensan did not respond to requests for comment. The UAE is one of 14 countries that has substantial or pervasive internet censorship at the government level, according to the Open Net Initiative, a US-based organisation that researches internet filtering around the world. The Australian government will soon introduce a filtering system that will require all internet service providers to offer "clean" connections, free from pornography and content the government considers inappropriate for children. Subscribers will have the option to opt out of the "clean" service, but will still have their connections filtered to remove content classified by the government as illegal. * The National