Internet restrictions target political activism

Norman Girvan

2 February 2013

Sitting in my hotel room in Geneva Thursday night, I tried to access my personal website for a document I needed. Imagine my amazement when the following message popped up on my computer screen: 

“ The web access is restricted. Please contact with administrator.(Political/Activist Groups)

(If you feel this site has been improperly categorized, please visit here to submit a review.)” 

 

Dutifully clicking “here”, this took me to the webpage of an organization that calls itself “Blue Coat” (http://sitereview.bluecoat.com/sitereview.jsp) which tells you this:

WebPulse Site Review Request

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By entering a URL in the box below and clicking "Check Rating", you are agreeing to the Blue Coat Site Review Terms & Conditions.

The purpose of Site Review is to allow Blue Coat customers to check the current categorization of WebPulse URL ratings and report sites that they believe are incorrectly categorized. Note: This tool does not perform full real-time analysis of malicious sites or files, which is included with the complete Blue Coat security solution.

Bottom of Form

I decided to decline Blue Coat’s kind offer. I wasn’t about to argue a case on behalf of my own website to satisfy an organization about which I know nothing (except that it is some kind of self-appointed Internet policeman) to have me deleted from a secret list drawn up using secret criteria. The word that comes to mind is “Kafka-esque”, from the celebrated novel in which a man is locked up by an authority that doesn’t reveal itself and is required to prove his innocence of a crime that hasn’t been disclosed to him.


I had previously encountered the same message when trying to access from my hotel the website of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, a well-known, highly reputable NGO based right here in Geneva.  Since then my internet surfing has encountered several other organizations and NGO sites which keep my company on Blue Coat’s list of restricted access “Political/Activist Groups”. These include

-        Counterpunch.org

-        Pambazuka.org;

-        the EPA List Administration Site (from which EPA messages are moderated, and which is hosted by Pambazuka.org),

-        1804CaribVoices

-        The World Forum for Alternatives

-        Cuba CO OP (which “has been connecting our visitors with providers of Adventure Travel, Africa Travel, Air Travel and many other related services for nearly 10 years”

-        CubaDebate

-        PeaceJam. Org (“An international education program built around leading Nobel Peace Laureates with the goal to inspire a new generation of peacemakers who will transform” etc.)

-        the personal website of Adolfo Perez Esquivel, 1980 Nobel Peace Laureate

-        the personal website of a colleague also staying at my hotel who is a senior official in the United Nations

-        now hear this: the personal website of the President of the United States, BarackObama.com!

 

My enquiries of the hotel manager confirmed that yes, indeed, the hotel knows of the restrictions; and yes, it was applied at the hotel manager’s own request-- “to protect patrons” I was told, (presumably from the dangerous messages of “political/activist groups” that might actually help them in their negotiation meetings held at the nearby WTO and UNCTAD headquarters); and yes, it’s a service to which the hotel subscribes. No, it’s nothing personal against me or my colleague; sometimes it just happens, maybe too many categories of restriction had been checked when the service was being ordered; and yes, the hotel has received complaints about this before.

 

By the end of the day, however, not only had access to my personal website not been restored (I was only able to access it from the nearby UNCTAD HQ), but hey, www.1804caribvoices.org, which I had been able to access the night before, was no longer accessible from my hotel either! Hmm..the plot thickens…someone evidently had nothing better to do with their time than to add websites used by troublesome patrons to the restricted list.     

 

Seriously, though, there are several aspects of this experience that really bother me. I realise, of course, that my website and that of the others mentioned are probably accessible to most people, except those that subscribe to the Blue Coat service. What concerns me is that

(1) The fact that this service exists--it is one thing to block spam and porno emails, but another, it seems to me, for an organisation to maintain a list of restricted "Political/Activist Groups" and to market this service to customers, without the knowledge of the groups who are thereby categorised, let alone disclosure of the criteria. Clearly, the decisions on exclusion (and exemptions) are political decisions.    

 

(2) Can it be just a coincidence that the service is applied, and may well have originated, in a city that is the home of the WTO, UNCTAD and a host of other IGOs and NGOs and which has been the site of numerous “activist” anti-globalisation demonstrations?  

(3) Isn’t it significant that the service is applied in a hotel that is much used by delegates to meetings of WTO and UNCTAD and other IGOs and NGOs. Seems to me suspiciously like a political act, disguised as a commercial service, which is aimed at restricting the flow of critical information to hotel guests from groups engaged in advocacy of one kind or another.

(4) Finally—and most worryingly—I wonder, once this practice comes into use, and is established as normal, legal and legitimate; whether it doesn’t have the potential to be used more widely, and against an increasing range of groups and organisations involved in social and political activism in all parts of the world. It is customary for businesses to swap/share and market their Internet lists and email addresses (for example banks and credit card companies). So where does this stop? One disturbing connotation of this practice is that "Political/Activist Groups" are tarred with the same brush as terrorist organisations and sex trafficking rings--as belonging to the same kind of groups to which unrestricted access should not be permitted.

I am curious to know if anyone or organization  in the global activist community has previously encountered problems of this kind; if they know anything about Blue Coat, the organisation offering this service (the choice of colour in the company’s name is curious, to say the least); and what others think about this whole business.
 

Websites of “Political/Activist Groups” restricted by BlueCoat.com encountered so far

www.normangirvan.org

www.counterpunch.org

www.icstd.org

http://www.digplanet.com/wiki/Adolfo_P%C3%A9rez_Esquivel

http://www.peacejam.org/

http://lists.pambazuka.org/cgi-bin/mailman/admindb/c-epas

http://lists.pambazuka.org/

http://www.cubacoop.com/

http://www.forumdesalternatives.org/en/

http://www.cubadebate.cu

http://1804caribvoices.org

http://www.barackobama.com/