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When US-made 'censorware' ends up in iron fists

Despite Burma's record of repression, it's probably legal for American companies to sell Internet filters there, export lawyers say. But is it ethical?

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During Burma's short-lived uprising late last month, young dissidents risked their lives to smuggle news of their peaceful protest to the outside world. They may have been up against Internet censorship software designed in America, if a connection found to exist in 2005 still holds.

Moreover, if a US firm wanted to sell Internet filters to Burma (Myanmar) today, despite several layers of economic sanctions against the government there, it would probably be legal to do so, say export lawyers.

Absence of federal regulation has allowed so-called censorware of at least four California companies to end up in the hands of foreign governments shown to block citizens' access to political, religious, and other websites.

Events in Burma provide new fodder for a censorware debate that had focused, until now, on China. Some experts note that repressive regimes might never have allowed Internet access at all if not for the filters, which tech-savvy citizens can overcome. But critics say US companies are breaking American values by abetting such censorship.

"Where the best and the brightest of Silicon Valley had been wiring the world, they are now, in these cases, doing the opposite," says Ronald Deibert, an investigator for the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaboration of Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge universities and the University of Toronto.

ONI researchers are conducting tests that have so far found censorship in 24 of 40 countries. Testing involves local users in each country trying to access various websites. Certain patterns and failure messages emerge, indicating which filtering system a country uses.

The software companies involved sell this technology primarily to private companies in the US and abroad. Companies use these tools to keep employees from accessing pornography sites and websites infected with viruses.

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