Search Mailing List Archives

Limit search to: Subject & Body Subject Author
Sort by: Reverse Sort
Limit to: All This Week Last Week This Month Last Month
Select Date Range     through    

[liberationtech] Smartfilter: Miscategorization and Filtering in Saudi Arabia and UAE

Ronald Deibert r.deibert at
Thu Nov 28 12:52:57 PST 2013

Hi LibTech

Citizen Lab has published a new research report on our blog post.  The URL is here:

and I'm pasting it below.  It is written by Bennet Haselton, and pretty straight forward,
but no less important an issue that is still with us: content mistakenly filtered as "porn"
at a national level.


Smartfilter: Miscategorization and Filtering in Saudi Arabia and UAE

November 28, 2013

By Bennett Haselton

What do the Trinity Davison Lutheran Church, the Filipino American Women’s Network, the Tuscon Jazz Institute, the Sacramento Police Activities League, the Pan Iranist Party of Iran, and the Salvation Army of Houston, Texas have in common?

Their websites are all blocked for Internet users in Saudi Arabia, and for most Internet users in the United Arab Emirates — but not because those countries’ governments disapprove of those websites. Rather, these sites are blocked by ISPs in those countries because the ISPs use the U.S.-made Internet blocking program “Smartfilter”, and Smartfilter mistakenly categorizes these sites and many others as “pornography”.

The Smartfilter web blocking product has existed since 1996, and the manufacturer, Secure Computing, was acquired by McAfee in 2008. McAfee runs a support site at where users can look up how sites are classified in Smartfilter’s rating system. For example, the screen captures here, here and here show,, and categorized as “pornography”. The lookup form does not give any reason why the sites would have been categorized as such, and none of these or other sites in our report contained any content that we found which could reasonably be called “pornography”. (The lookup form does, however, provide the option to email feedback to McAfee asking for a site’s classification to be changed. We did not submit any requests to change the classifications of any of the sites we found to be blocked.)

Figure 1 – An example of a site miscategorized as pornography by Smartfilter

A previous OpenNet Initiative report, “West Censoring East”, focused on the issue of American and Canadian software companies selling Internet filtering programs to government censors in the Middle East and North Africa. The Smartfilter web blocking product, which has existed since 1996 and which was acquired by McAfee in 2008, has at various times been used for nationwide Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Tunisia, and Iran. Today, Smartfilter is only known to be used in Saudi Arabia, and in UAE for customers of Etisalat, one of the UAE’s two Internet providers. (The other Internet provider in the UAE, a telecom company known as “du”, uses the Canadian-made Netsweeper filter.)

McAfee maintains a centralized database of site categorizations. All Smartfilter customers download periodic updates to the database, so that if a site is newly categorized or re-categorized in Smartfilter’s database, these updates will be pushed out to customers usually within 24 hours. Citizen Lab confirmed in summer 2013 that Smartfilter was still being used in Saudi Arabia and on UAE Etisalat, by creating new websites and submitting them to Smartfilter to be blocked, and verifying that the sites became blocked in Saudi Arabia and on UAE Etisalat a few days later (while a control group of similar websites created at the same time, did not become blocked).

Network administrators can choose the categories of sites to be blocked by Smartfilter. Our current tests indicate that Smartfilter is being used in Saudi Arabia and on UAE Etisalat with at least the “Pornography” category blocked. We tentatively believe that the “Nudity” category is also blocked in both Saudi Arabia and UAE, since there were two sites in our sample — and — which were classified under “Nudity” (but not “Pornography”) on and which were also both blocked in our testing in both countries. (However, with a sample size of just two, we decline to draw any definitive conclusions.)

Our results also suggest that other related SmartFilter categories, such as “Incidental Nudity”, “Sexual Materials” and “Provocative Attire”, are probably not blocked (except that “Incidental Nudity” is blocked in UAE but not Saudi Arabia — see below). For each of those categories, we found sites which classified in that category, but which were available in both countries:

The sites,, and are all categorized on under “Sexual Materials”. While these are probably errors (the sites themselves do not appear to have any “sexual material” on them), the sites are not blocked in Saudi Arabia or on UAE Etisalat.

The sites,, and and were all categorized as “Incidental Nudity”, and these four sites were all accessible in Saudi Arabia in our testing, but were blocked on UAE Etisalat. This suggests that UAE Etisalat has enabled the “Incidental Nudity” category but Saudi Arabia has not.

The sites, and are all classified as “Provocative Attire” but are not blocked in either country.

Using an ad-hoc combination of domain name sampling and automated web spidering, we found over 100 sites that were mistakenly classified as “pornography” by Smartfilter, and hence were blocked in Saudi Arabia and on UAE Etisalat as of this writing. (Obviously, our testing could only sample a small portion of the Web, and so our list should not be taken to represent more than a tiny fraction of sites that were mis-classified by Smartfilter.)

In most cases it was impossible to discern why the sites may have been classified as “pornography”, but in some cases we could guess as to the probable reason. Some blocked sites were using domain names that sounded as if they might have previously been registered to pornographic websites. We can use the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine” to check whether any such domains might have hosted pornographic content in the past. We did not check the history for every blocked domain, but we checked the history for six domains whose names sounded as if they could plausibly have been used to host pornography —,,,,, and (This was an informal selection simply based on “glancing through” the list of domains that we found to be blocked.) Of these, we found that, and all hosted adult content at some point in the past, when the domains were owned by companies other than their present owners. However, we think it is reasonable to assume that most of the other domain names in our sample, such as (The Society for the Historical Preservation of the Fourteenth Brooklyn) and (a guide to low-cost recreational activities in Northeastern Pennsylvania) are unique enough that it is unlikely they were previously owned by other parties, much less by pornographic websites.

In other cases, the site was probably blocked because of a “trigger word” that appeared in the domain name. The sites and were presumably blocked because of the occurrence of the words “porn” and “sperm”. (a Gilbert and Sullivan Society based in Scunthorpe, England) was presumably blocked due to the presence of the slang word “cunt” in the domain name. (This particular word filtering error is so common that it is known as the “Scunthorpe problem”.), the website for the Big Horn Basin, Wyoming chapter of Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife, was presumably blocked because of the accidental inclusion of the string “nsfw”, an Internet acronym for “not suitable for work”, used as a signifier to indicate pornographic or otherwise workplace-inappropriate content.

The following is a sample of websites that we found to be blocked in Saudi Arabia and UAE Etisalat as a result of the site being mis-classified by Smartfilter as “pornography”. Testing in Saudi Arabia was performed over October 16-17, 2013 on a VPN connection using HideMyAss Pro software, connected through an IP address registered to “National Computer Systems Co.” in Riyadh. (We re-tested on November 27th using a connection through the King Abdulaziz City For Science And Technology, and found the sites listed below were all still blocked.) Testing from within the UAE was performed on November 3rd, 2013 by a volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous. When a blocked site was accessed from within Saudi Arabia, it would display this page indicating that the site had been blocked. When a blocked site was accessed on UAE Etisalat, it would bring up this error page, displaying the message:

It is not clear whether this page is intended to fool the user into thinking the website is temporarily down (as opposed to being blocked by the ISP). On the one hand, the error message seems to indicate a temporary failure; on the other hand, the title of the error page (clearly visible in the screen capture linked above) is “Blocked URL”. (It is also not clear why the error message is displayed in English.)

In our list of sites below, each entry is accompanied by a screen capture of the site being categorized on McAfee’s site as “pornography”, along with a screen capture of the site being blocked from within Saudi Arabia. (We did not collect screen captures of blocking within UAE, other than the single screen capture linked above, since this testing was performed by a volunteer and time constraints prevented them from collecting screen captures for every site.) Smartfilter might change its classifications of these sites after this post is published; the most current classifications can be looked up using McAfee’s form at

For each list entry, the letters “ts” are linked to a screen capture of the site’s categorization on McAfee’s site, and the letters “sa” are linked to a screen capture of the site being blocked in Saudi Arabia. historical society dedicated to the history of the 14th Regiment, New York State Militia. of a real estate agent in the 905 area code of Toronto, Canada. Board of Vocational Experts, a professional credentialing body. clearinghouse of information about poverty in Washington State. Spanish-language adoption information site. site arguing that pornography has harmful effects. Acadiana Indian Association, an Indian cultural organization in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. site about common heritage of Islam and Judaism. Amitayu Buddhist Society of Taiwan photoblog of (non-pornographic) travel photos. information site about animal service, therapy, and rescue organizations. art gallery based in Seattle, Washington. home page of Jan-Niklas Antons. water conditioning company. Turkish news site. Polish graphic design company website, including a design portfolio. corporate training and development firm. Japanese company selling water from Mount Fuji. Japanese fortune-teller’s website. UK-based higher education blog. Italian site about medieval instruments. site promoting sailing in the Baltic Sea. youth orchestra featuring musicians from Israel, Palestine, and various Arab countries. Business Development Bank of Canada. photography studio focusing exclusively on portraits of pregnant women. German site about the protection of big cat species. for Fish & Wildlife, Bighorn Basin Wyoming chapter. page of Matthew Salazar. for a rentable guest house on an island in Greece. German-language finance magazine. site about an effort to createa national common heritage day in South Africa. (Note: This site was blocked in Saudi Arabia but wasnot blocked in the UAE, either onNovember 4th or on a subsequent test on November 26th, despite the fact that it was categorized on trustedsource.orgas “Pornography” on both of those dates. This is an unexplained anomaly, since all other sites classified as “Pornography”were blocked in the UAE, and there’s no obvious reason why UAE censors would have granted an exemption to this site inparticular.) artist’s collection of comic drawings and ASCII art. German-language website featuring local news from Germany. animal welfare charity. conference center run by a network of hospitals in Birmingham, Alabama. Spanish-language cat rescue site. Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center, an informational resource about birth control and abortion. offical fan site for a singer from Sydney, Australia. French caviar company. California Center for Economic Initiatives — a nonprofit whosemission is “to encourage environmental stewardship among inner city youth”. informational site about French bulldog breeds. Joana D’arc (The Joan of Arc Institute) – Spanish-language site for an institute fighting the spread of AIDS in Paraguay. international non-profit headquartered in Italy, promoting volunteer service work. Illinois (Coalition for Honest and New Government Ethics) – a site advocating for government ethics reform. official website for Ch�teau de La Chapelle Bellouin, a French castle and tourist attraction. alternate URL for the Northwest Museum in Spokane, Washington, formerlythe Cheney Cowles museum. site about Chinese Crested dogs. entertainment firm providing DJs for hire for weddings and other events. site operated by the Green America foundation to raise awareness of climate change. Massacusetts Radio Control Modelers; a hobbyist site for radio control modeling. site publishing tips and tricks for troubleshooting computer problems. Spanish-language art gallery website. “Celebrate Recovery” program, operated by the Calvary Road Baptist Church inAlexandria, Virginia. A Christian-themed addiction recovery program. site with advice about home improvement and home investment. Columbia University Games Club, an extra-curricular club at Columbia University in New York City. Italy-based activist site, described as “a movement of young people united by their passion for their land and their culture”. website for Dance Mirror, an online dance magazine. Development Action for Women Network (DAWN) – supporting human rights for Filipino femalemigrants in Japan. Spanish-language LGBT advocacy and activist site. Tabernacle Ministries International, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. for a condominium complex in the Coachella Valley Narconon Il Gabbiano, an Italian institute for combatting drug and alcohol dependency informational site about treating and fighting arthritis. professional website of director and editor Ethan Shaftel Farms, a pork seller owned by 30 farm families in the upper-midwest United States. website of Al G. Manning, a paraspychologist promoting astrology and magical spells French-language website for a European telecommunications firm. Filipino American Women’s Network, a volunteer organization advocating for Filipino-Americanwomen in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. for the International Sambo Federation (pertaining to the Russian martial art known as Sambo). non-profit promoting free and low-cost events in Northeaster Pennsylvania. de Ayuda y Respuesta en Emergencias. An emergency-response non-profit site, in Spanish. news and entertainment site for the gay community of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. online community for LGBT people to discuss religion. blog by a girl named Jamiee from Asheville, NC. (The webmaster describes herself as having”a fucked-up sense of humor” but the site is clearly not pornographic.) Kade Language House at the University of Virginia – for UVA students studying German fan site about the (possible) upcoming Halo movie (currently shelved). of the Hamilton Law Firm in Cumming, Georgia. (Possibly blacklisted because of the slang word “cumming” in the title.) “Human Communication and Technology Division” of theNational Communication Association,an organization advancing the study of human communications. blog about family health tips. basketball gym in Austin, Texas, established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the goal ofbringing life skills to the players who practice there. Hopewell United Methodist Church in Hopewell, New Jersey. Seal, a manufacturer of gaskets, packaging, and sealing devices. View Enterprises, a firearms retailer and indoor shooting range in Ventura, California. Network for Nonviolence Action Training and Education. An umbrella group forIrish groups advocating nonviolent conflict resolution. Solutions, a British technology solutions provider. is Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian ministry based in Houston, TX. German site promoting adventure tourism by camel caravan. Freemason lodge in Provincetown, Massachusetts. River Professional Guide Association, an organization devoted to protecting and preservingthe Kenai River in Alaska. Cure, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of prison inmates in Kansas. of Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan) in India. Lebanon Reformed Church, in Lebanon, NJ, affiliated with theReformed Church in America. French-language website for a Christian Methodist mission in the Ivory Coast. site for a linguistics institute in Italy. network of charities and NGOs located around the world. Financial Services, provided by Baxter Credit Union in Illinois. organization for Maine-based homebirth midwives. collection of photographs of the Class of 1953-60 of Michenden Grammar Schoolin London. Moriah School, a Jewish boarding school in Bergen County, New Jersey. spanish-language geneology site. National Association of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program Directors. Scout Troop 87 of North Andover, Massachusetts. Braunfels Republican Women, of New Braunfels, Texas. site about antique toys and classic cars, boats, and collectibles. site opposing a proposed Business Improvement District (BID) tax inLawrenceville, Pennsylvania. Action Against Chemical Addiction, a non-profit substance abuserecovery program in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Party of Iran, a political party supporting the re-unification of Iranianpeople outside the borders of present-day Iran. Spanish-language site featuring news stories about religion and Christianity. German-language site for trainer Michael Geitner’s horse-training services. Guard Riders of Mississippi, a volunteerorganization devoted to “ensuring dignity and respect at memorialservices honoring Fallen Military Heroes, First Responders and Honorably Discharged Veterans.” program promoting summer programs in Iran for Iranian-Americans. Conservation International, a reptile conservation advocacy organizationbased in Austin, Texas. Ministries, a religious non-profit offering counseling and healing services. site providing free web space to musicians and artists around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. archive of photographs by Richard Wanderman. personal site and travel blog of San Francisco Bay Area resident Robert Mann. Police Activities League, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, comprised primarily ofSacramento Police Department members, helping underservedyouth of Sacramento. Salvation Army of Houston, Texas guide to tourist activities in Sanibel Island, Florida. music retailer focusing on heavy metal. Small Business Institute, an organization based in Clinton, Mississippi,dedicated to field-based student consulting and outreach to small businesses. Gilbert and Sullivan Amateur Operatic Society of Scunthorpe, UK. UK-based website for people trying to connect with their sperm donor fathers and other relatives.”Awesome Information For Everyone” – a compendium of random factual knowledge. St. Francis Institute of Milwaukee, a learningcommunity for spiritual development and formation in the Franciscan tradition. site organizing the 30th reunion of the Scarsdale (New York) High School Class of 1978. at Simpson Creek Farms, a dog training institute in Springfield, Missourri. German-language site about the spirillum microorganism. professional website of Sandramarie Boyet, a life coach based in Englewood, Colorado. for an annual play put on by the St Thomas School in Southington, Connecticut,depicting the last days of Jesus’s life. Columbas Church in Northern Island. electronics contractor based in Exeter, Pennsylvania. company that trains service and therapy dogs. Lutheran Church in Bridgeton, Missouri. Davison Lutheran Church in Davison, Michigan. Scout Troop 103 in Fremont, California. boy scout troop for in Shiloh, Illinois for Christian homeschooled children. Repairers Of The Breach (TROTB), a Christian ministry based in India. Tuscon Jazz Institute, a music education institute in Arizona. educational resource site about Turkistan and Azerbaijan. Quakers community in in Wayne, Pennsylvania., the Ontario-based makers of lesson-planning software. Italian-language site about the Vidya Bharata spiritual movement. Wilderness Awareness and Education Institute, an organization devoted to raising awareness of natural resources and outdoor recreation.

Most reports on Internet censorship in countries that practice nationwide Internet filtering, have focused on the censorship of political content, adult websites, or social networking and media sharing sites such as Facebook and Youtube. This focus makes sense, since the blocking of these websites is likely to have a far greater impact on users in the censored countries, than the blocking of relatively obscure sites such as the Trinity Davison Lutheran Church of Davison, Michigan. However, for the sake of completeness, we should not ignore the large numbers of sites that are blocked in censored countries simply because they have been mis-classified by the manufacturer of the blocking program being used.

Ronald Deibert
Director, the Citizen Lab 
and the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies
Munk School of Global Affairs
University of Toronto
(416) 946-8916
r.deibert at

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the liberationtech mailing list