West Censoring East: Or Why Websense Thinks My Blog is Pornography

Today, the OpenNet Initiative has released a paper, authored by Helmi Noman and myself, enumerating the widespread use of American- and Canadian-built filtering technologies in the Middle East and North Africa.  The paper, entitled “West Censoring East: The Use of Western Technologies by Middle East Censors 2010-2011“, looks closely at Websense, McAfee’s SmartFilter, and Netsweeper in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and particularly at how websites–including my own, the OpenNet Initiative’s, and Amira Al Hussaini’s blog–have been mis-categorized by these technologies, resulting in what is essentially censorship.

While I suggest you read the paper (or this excellent Wall Street Journal article reporting on it), I’d like to discuss briefly why my blog was categorized as pornography by Websense.  Frankly, I find it utterly fascinating: About a year ago, Helmi Noman–my co-author–discovered that this very blog was blocked in Yemen.  Upon further investigation, Helmi realized that the reason for the blockage was not political content or anything of the sort, but that my blog had been categorized–by Websense–as pornography.

After Websense barred Yemen from future software updates, I thought the problem had been solved until Luke Allnutt–who works at RFE/RL, which uses Websense in its offices–tweeted that he couldn’t get to my blog.

I quickly wrote to Websense, and received a fairly rapid reply, telling me that my blog had been reclassified as a personal site.  Great–I then pushed back a bit, asking how my blog had been categorized as a pornographic site in the first place.  My assumption was that their automated system was based on keywords, and that my blogging about Helmi Noman’s paper (“Sex, Social Mores, and Keyword Filtering: Microsoft Bing in the ‘Arabian Countries‘”) had caused it; after all, it caused “Arab sex” to be the #1 search term for my blog.

Turns out, that wasn’t the case at all.  In fact, what happened was significantly more chilling.  Here’s the text of an email sent to me by Patricia Hogan, Senior Public Relations Specialist for Websense:

Hi Jillian,

Regarding your questions about blog classification, the problem seems to come from the comments, not the posts. Indeed, you appear to be the victim of comment spam (which often contains pornographic links or links to malware).

Look at the comments after this post: The last comment has pornographic links and the one preceding it has links to pharmacy spam, which often leads to malware. This is just one post that we looked at. You may have more.

Comment spam has been hounding bloggers (and more recently Facebook users), so Websense developed tools to help keep blogs and readers safe from spam like this. We offer free plug-ins for many blog platforms to help prevent this type of comment abuse (go to for more information). We don’t want you to be victimized again from unscrupulous posts, and our plug-in allows you to control what content you wish to appear on your site.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any more questions.


Sr. Public Relations Specialist

ph: +1.858.320.9393
fax: +1.858.784.4393

What Hogan is saying is that anyone can manipulate Websense software by spamming a blog’s comments section with porn outlinks. Let me say that again: Websense can be manipulated by anyone wishing to censor anyone else, just by adding a few links to porn in the comments section.

SmartFilter appears to have similar problems. A few months ago, blogger Sabina England reported that her blog was blocked in the UAE, which uses the software. While she may have a similar issue with “porn spam,” our suspicion at the time was that SmartFilter was detecting keywords, and had blocked England’s blog based on the use of the words “cunt,” “sexy,” and “whores” in a poem she had written.

I find this utterly chilling; now, I will say that Yemen has stopped using Websense and we’re not aware of any other countries–at least in the Middle East and North Africa–that use the software. Nevertheless, plenty of schools, libraries, and workplaces use Websense and other tools, and while their blocking of pornography may be justified, the mis-categorization of URLs by these technologies means that there are chilling effects, even to blocking porn.

24 replies on “West Censoring East: Or Why Websense Thinks My Blog is Pornography”

Perhaps you should moderate your comments, so that the porn comments do not appear on your blog? Would that solve the problem? Even so, it’s pretty unsettling to know that your blog can be classifed as porn just because of spam!

I’m banned all over the gulf states. And strangely proud of it. You might want to delete this message, or at least my website because I believe they will perceive it as a link to pornography.

You write erotica, and many people consider all erotica porn. No matter how well written or thought provoking.

I’ve had my site banned in China , but so far as I know not in the Middle East even though my site has a lot more explicit pictures than yours.

Just a short comment:
You shouldn’t have to moderate to avoid being blocked, but you should moderate so that your visitors know that the commenting section is being cared for : )
I know that when I come to a site where all sorts of spam is allowed I’m not that interested in commenting as it feels like noone cares who’s writing what (and it gives the impression that noone’l read it either).

I think the current uprisings that are to be seen all over the middle east speak to a grass-roots lack of patience with the paternalistic attitudes of those in power. As ironic as it is that Western technology that has enabled the blocking of sites, it was also Western technology – the web – that offered initial access to them. If you think their web is censored, you should see their libraries.

It comes back to being a matter of how the technology is used and the agenda of the users. Ultimately, though, I think we will see a rise in demands for choice and self-directed exposure. But, it would be a mistake to believe that limiting one’s consumption of what one considers offensive is an innate skill. Apparently it’s not. I get very nasty comments all the time from American fundamentalist Christians who can’t seem to stop themselves from coming to my site, reading my stories and THEN being offended. Over and over again.

The presence of censorship laws in most countries would suggest that even in ‘the enlightened west’ we seem to doubt our own ability to limit what we consume to what is socially acceptable, proper, etc. So, to one degree or another, it seems like all forms of government feel compelled to ‘protect us from ourselves’.

But situation in Iran is different! According on my test, keyword is one of part for blocking a blog (like my blog!) and if a website suddenly receive many visitors (for example from 100 hits to 1000 hits) it will automatically block by Iranian government.

When people who have an anti spam/ anti virus filter in place that understands the components of blog and web 2.0 sites, they protect the user browsing to your site form the malicious content embedded within your webpage/ blog/ postings. If they had a poor filter in place it would allow that user to access your site and automatically give the malicious code on your poage access to that persons personal computer and if in a company setting, allow them access to confidential and sensitive data. The leading web security filters you mentioned above are protecting the unsuspecting users form that malicious content on your web page. You can download defensio free, which will prevent this content from being posted on your site and enable your readers to access your site and page without the security risk.

The top data stealing hackars are using bloog sites like yours, facebook, anything where the postings are dynamically changing to steal that visitors data. It is not the filtering or security providers responsibility to prevent those comments form being posted to your blog unless you are paying them to do so- it is their job to prevent business and individual users form getting in the line of fire with the risk associated from visiting sites and web pages hosting that content.

Hi Jaime,

I’m not talking about a web security filter, but rather, a filter used for censorship. If the concern were malicious content, Websense would have placed my blog in that category. Rather, it was categorized as pornography.

I should also note that there were only 5 such comments, on a post from several years ago. I do moderate my comments.


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