Introducing, "The Circumventer"

A new software aiming to circumvent web censorship in the Middle East and beyond was recently launched at a summit on blogging in Cairo. The tool "Al-Kasir" - meaning "the circumventer" in Arabic, is now available for public use in its first test version. MENASSAT spoke to the brain behind Al-Kasir, Sweden-based Yemeni Internet pundit Walid Al-Saqaf.
The tool "Al-Kasir" - meaning "the circumventer" in Arabic is being used to tackle government web censorship in the Arab world.

BEIRUT, May 20, 2009 (MENASSAT) - At a Kamal Adham Journalism Institute "Blogging for the Future" conference in Cairo, the Al-Kasir made its first public appearance.

A tool that allows Internet users to access blocked websites, developer Walid Al-Saqaf, a Sweden-based Yemeni, is using the device to respond to government web censorship.

"I realized that the authorities are getting so sophisticated that they need a similarly sophisticated response that could match up to their level that would limit their control over what users can access from within their countries," he said.

The tool also performs periodic checks on censored sites to track whether they remain constantly blocked or if the filtering is lifted at times. Meanwhile, users of the program can report information about filtering and blocking in their respective countries. The data gets stored in a centralized unit in the software.

Al-Saqaf, who also launched Yemen’s first independent news search engine a few years ago, has been a target of Yemeni government censorship. In the spring of 2008, the five different domains of Yemenportal were shut down, making the site inaccessible in Yemen, except through the use of proxy sites.

Beating the censors

Al-Saqaf told MENASSAT that his personal experience with web censorship served as an inspiration to develop Al-Kasir. More importantly though, Al-Saqaf feels that authorities are becoming increasingly skilled in web censorship, and that their technological advancement need to be countered in a similar manner. 

While primarily intended for use in Arab countries like Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen where web censorship is widely imposed, Al-Kasir can be used in any country.

In the first days after its launching, Al-Kasir was used in Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and China, among other countries. The tool was also explored by curious users in countries that don’t suffer from web censorship, such as the UK and Germany.

Al-Saqaf explained the process of using the tool to access blocked websites. 

"When you open the program, you will get information about your ISP, country, etc. If someone using the same ISP as you had already reported through Al-Kasir about a blocked website and that website got approved (by the moderators), then it will be accessible by you. If not, then you could report a blocked website and then it will be moderated and if approved, it will be accessible by you as well as everyone else using Al-Kasir and accessing the Internet through your ISP."

Limited scope

So does Al-Kasir circumvent all kinds of web censorship or is the scope limited?

Al-Saqaf told MENASSAT that the program only circumvents human-moderated websites that have been blocked by governments due to "political or informational reasons."

"In other words, the program allows access to human rights and activist websites, political websites, discussion groups, and social groups. It was a tough decision to make but it was necessary because otherwise, the bandwidth and the legal constraints would be costly," he continued.

"Some may not like what we’re doing."

In terms of legal issues, Al-Saqaf said he will consult experts in the area to find out about potential constraints. But one thing he’s sure of - Al-Kasir will not be greeted with open arms by repressive governments.

"I certainly understand that some governments may not like what we are doing. I'm sure they will try to crack the code for Al-Kasir but it may take them a while doing that and hopefully by the time the stable version is released, it will be more difficult for them to do so," he said.

Al-Kasir is currently available in its Beta test version.  The product was implemented with the support of MidEastYouth, an online student-owned independent network that promotes constructive dialogue and understanding within the Middle East and North Africa.

Al-Saqaf hopes the program will rise to become a useful tool for those seeking access independent information in countries with restricted web access.

"My intention is that it gets used by people and becomes helpful to evade censorship of news and opinion in countries with emerging democracies and those struggling under excessive restrictions. Whether it gets popular is difficult to guess but I certainly hope it becomes useful,"he concluded.