November 1, 2011

Websense statement on improper use of technology for suppression of rights and in violation of trade sanctions

Michael Newman

There are many stories in the news this week about how US technology is used by repressive regimes to censor internet content, possibly in violation of trade sanctions and embargoes. Given the role of the internet in the recent Arab Spring uprisings, it is little wonder why repressive regimes seek to stifle online education and communication that they see as threatening.

Is it appropriate for American businesses to claim that technology is morally neutral, and therefore absolve themselves of responsibility for its use? 

No. American software companies should take strong measures to prevent the misuse of their technologies where it would be harmful to the public good. And it’s long overdue for American technology companies to step forward and address this problem.

Websense is a world leader in protecting corporate data, and has for years also been the world leader in web filtering, a type of software that allows organizations to choose what web content is permissible for their employees to access in the workplace.  Websense does not support the use of our software for the purposes of government censorship and Websense does not sell to governments for the purposes of censorship.

To illustrate, several years ago a Yemeni internet service provider purchased Websense filtering software from a third party and pirated it to censor Yemeni citizens. When Websense learned of the pirated software being used for censorship, we disabled it, preventing the Yemeni ISP from continuing to misuse and abuse Websense software. This business would have been 100% legal for Websense to pursue; yet we took the moral and ethical stand to cede that business to the competition.  And just last month, we detected—and blocked—two attempts to use our software using cloaked addresses in Europe that were actually fronts for entities in Syria, a country subject to trade sanctions by the United States. This is not rocket science, but it does take some moral fiber, smart people, commitment, and follow-through.

Websense has been highly transparent in our position on censorship and the full text of our anti-censorship policy is publicly available to all of our customers and competitors on our website.  But instead of being a lone voice for this cause, we are issuing a call to action to the industry and stakeholders. We challenge all other American technology vendors to join us in prohibiting repressive regimes from using American technology to prevent open communications. As a U.S. organization, based in a country founded on the right of free speech, we believe that other companies should adopt ethical policies and technical measures that prevent their software and products from being used to restrict the communications freedoms that the internet affords every global citizen.

Technology can be both empowering and repressive. Families and communities grow, prosper, and share information online. Yet, repressive regimes suppress these voices by blocking access to content they perceive as unsettling or threatening. 

If you are a shareholder of a U.S. technology company, write to your leaders. If you are a citizen concerned with this issue, reach out to the companies that make these types of software and ask that they adopt a non-censorship policy similar to Websense. Reach out to organizations like the Open Net Initiative and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to ensure that they get the story right and understand how you can support ongoing, free discourse throughout the globe.

If you are an executive at a security company that makes software that can be used to censor internet activity in repressive regimes, we ask that you support the right course of action and stop selling repressive tools to oppressive regimes.

About Forcepoint

Forcepoint is the leading user and data protection cybersecurity company, entrusted to safeguard organizations while driving digital transformation and growth. Our solutions adapt in real-time to how people interact with data, providing secure access while enabling employees to create value.