How the U.S. Censors Arabs

In my spare time, I’ve been doing a lot of talking to activists and reporters about two issues that are getting very little coverage in the U.S., despite both being facets of U.S. policy. The first is H.R. 2278, which eatbees has done a better job than I ever could of explaining here. For those of you who are link-lazy, eatbees explains it in one paragraph:

On December 8, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 395 to 3, a resolution specifically naming three Arab TV stations — Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn — as “terrorist owned and operated” channels that broadcast “incitement to violence against the United States.” The resolution stated that any satellite provider that broadcasts these stations, or others to be named later, would be considered a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” under the law. The president would be required to report to Congress each year concerning “anti-American incitement to violence” on TV stations across the Middle East, covering 19 nations from Morocco to Iran.

I’m extremely concerned with the greater implications of this bill. Those channels are carried by NileSat of Egypt and ArabSat of Saudi Arabia, two satellite providers widely available across the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. I lived with NileSat for more than two years: it was my entertainment, my news. Beyond those channels, I had access to the MBC and Rotana suites of stations, which encompassed American programming and news, as well as Arab programs and films, often dubbed or subtitled in English. I had access to BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, and France 24, all in English, which is more than I can say for my cable provider here in Boston (I’ve written about the issues surrounding Al Jazeera in the US).

So, the implication of this bill is that, in order for NileSat and ArabSat to avoid being listed as terrorist carriers, they have to stop carrying Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn. I’m not going to make this post about defending those channels, which I’ve only briefly flipped past. But regardless of their content, what the House is doing, essentially, is attempting to influence what people watch globally by threatening satellite providers. If those satellite providers decide to comply and rid themselves of those three channels, the United States government will have effectively silenced those voices not just in the United States but in their countries of origin as well. I highly recommend reading eatbees‘ post if you have any interest in going beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the word “terrorism” and learning what the channels actually broadcast.

The second issue is State Department hypocrisy, namely when it comes to sanctions. I’ve written about the sanctions on Syria here, here, and here, and recently gave a quote to the UK’s Times.

My stance is this: The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Sudan, Cuba and North Korea, in terms of the way they affect software exports and downloads, do little to effect change in those countries’ regimes, harm ordinary netizens, and promote piracy.

I’ve done a lot more reading on the Syrian sanctions than on the other countries, admittedly, so I’ll use that as a test case to explain my point. Last year LinkedIn, for whatever reason (my suspicion is a State Department memo) realized they were in violation of the sanctions and that they needed to block Syrian users, by IP address, from accessing their software downloads (software that is designed for networking, job-searching, and resume-building). They errantly overblocked, cutting off all access to their site (read: software is prohibited, but site use is fine, by law). We complained, they restored access (though apparently not to Sudanese users). They still block the software, of course. If they chose not to, they would likely be saddled with a $500,000 fine. The penalty could be worse.

Can someone please tell me how prohibiting average Syrians from accessing networking software will help topple an authoritarian regime, or stop Syria from funding terrorism? No, you can’t. Because it won’t. Instead, it will prevent some average guy from doing something useful. It will make him angry toward the U.S. or its policy (as well he ought to be!). It will alienate him. It will likely lead him to find another way of getting the software, through a mirror site or a friend’s USB key. He’ll get the software anyway, but he won’t pay for it.

If the hypocrisy isn’t apparent yet, how’s this? Last summer, during the alleged “Twitter revolution” in Iran, the State Department sent Twitter a memo asking them to change their hours of maintenance for the sake of the Iranians. Twitter complied. On the surface, it was a very cool example of technology aiding dissidents, and a “free” government stepping in to help. But let’s remember, Iran is also under sanctions, which means ordinary Iranians cannot download software from U.S. hosts and servers. Which theoretically includes anonymity and circumvention tools. Which are exactly what Hillary Clinton promoted in her speech last week.

My guess is, nobody’s cracking down on those tools. And there are legal exemptions to the sanctions. But how is it just to pick and choose what Iranian or Syrian, or Sudanese citizens have access to? How is it okay to hand them “democracy tools” but refuse them Adobe Photoshop?

My conclusion? It isn’t.

Stay tuned for the next edition of “how the U.S. censors Arabs” for an analysis of Bing‘s filtering of search results in what they call the “Arabian countries.”

6 replies on “How the U.S. Censors Arabs”

Having lived in the Middle East myself for nearly two decades, I do have to agree with your conclusions here. I had no idea this pressure was being applied in America. I think most Americans are shocked (as I was) to go overseas and find the United States is often perceived by the man in the street as being a big bully. This article helps to explain why.

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