TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Walid Al-Saqaf

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Walid Al-Saqaf developed alkasir, software to circumvent Internet censorship. In this interview, Walid tells us why he’s vowed never to succumb to authoritarian regimes. >>>

Walid asks:

Can Internet censorship of any particular content be justified under certain circumstances? Explain.

Click here to respond on Facebook now! Or join Walid’s live Q&A on TED Conversations August 5, 1pm to 2pm Eastern.

How did your journey in resisting censorship begin?

I come from Yemen, and in 2007 I developed a website called YemenPortal.net. This website is a news aggregator similar to, but of course much smaller in scale than, Google News. It handles several news websites on Yemen, bringing in content from government, opposition, independent news websites, blogs, videos, you name it — all having to do with Yemen.

I come from a journalistic background, and I also hold a degree in computer engineering, so I thought maybe I could merge the two together, and build a website that dynamically collects, aggregates and sorts information on Yemen. I thought of it as a contribution to my own country, and as a means to get my Master’s degree. Within a short time, the website had thousands of readers because it was something that no one had done before for Yemen.

I had ambitions that YemenPortal.net would be something of importance in the future. Unfortunately, in 2008 the Yemeni government became disgruntled because I did not filter out strongly worded opposition articles from certain websites. These websites were mostly hosted abroad, so the owners weren’t really persecuted — their websites were just blocked inside Yemen.

If you go to my website, you can see summaries of articles from other websites. People would click on the article links from my website, and go nowhere, because the articles are blocked. However, I still thought it was important for everyone to know what other websites are talking about. My idea was to ensure that everyone is represented. I didn’t want to act like the government does, filtering some viewpoints, while allowing others to be read.

Eventually my website itself got banned by the government. In trying to help others’ voices be heard, my own site was silenced. I realized I needed to investigate circumventing censorship, because if I couldn’t help myself, no one would help me.

That was when my journey in resisting censorship started. I fell first as a victim, but then I became an advocate for freedom of expression online.

That led to you developing alkasir, your software to circumvent censorship. How does it work?

Alkasir, which is an Arabic word meaning “the circumventor,” is a series of applications to help people access censored websites in their country. Alkasir started as a plugin for Firefox and Mozilla, developed into a web-based proxy on my own website, and then developed into another application as a pilot version, alkasir 1.1. I later developed 1.2 which is a much more advanced version of it. I have about 30,000 users worldwide — compared to many circumvention solutions, it’s not many — but it’s pretty substantial number. I have users in over 70 countries.

One idea that I developed within my work is a special unique method that I call “split tunneling.” Split tunneling is basically minimizing the use of bandwidth — it is only invoked when needed. For example, let’s say you’re in China, and you have 1,000 used websites. And among those 1,000 websites, there are three that are blocked. Alkasir sees if the website you’re trying to access is among the blocked websites, then it activates the tunnel. You go through the tunnel dynamically without noticing that there’s something different. If it’s an unblocked website, it goes through the regular channels. In this way it’s different than the available circumvention solutions that tunnel either everything or nothing. People often complain circumvention solutions deplete bandwidth resources. Because of split tunneling, I can serve the same amount of people with maybe 1 percent the bandwidth resources others would need.

Walid frequently uses multiple computers working in different operating systems as he develops alkasir.

You developed alkasir to help your readers reach your website. Is that still your main objective?

My PhD research here at the University of Orebro, Sweden, has opened my eyes to a whole new world of censorship on the Internet. It made me realize there are millions of users deprived of certain content. They only see part of the picture, so they don’t have a real sense of the reality of what exists on the Internet. So my intention, apart from helping myself and helping my readers, became helping other websites have their readers reach their content.

There are many who have used alkasir to not only circumvent censorship, but also to understand what they are missing. That’s another objective of this program. Even if you don’t access it, you still have this piece of information letting you get a sense of what else is out there.

Apart from serving users for free — it’s a free program — I’m also emphasizing the need for people to understand that you should act to be informed of these ill doings and censorship, and possibly use this information to campaign for freedom of expression in your own country.

The alkasir project is also a means of research and understanding the phenomenon of censorship. You can go to the website alkasir.com and find the map section, where it maps out what has been detected as blocked, or potentially blocked (it’s not a perfect system: it’s still under development). Our users have been instrumental in helping us map blocked websites.  It’s perhaps one of the most comprehensive methods of analyzing censorship worldwide.

Walid, at Google headquarters, where he was invited to discuss his work in tracking and researching Internet censorship.

How do you hope to grow alkasir in the future?

Among my future plans are introducing a cross-platform solution, because right now it’s only for Windows users. In the future I plan to deploy Mac and Linux programs as well as to empower those with needs of voice-over IP programs like Microsoft messenger and Skype. So far alkasir is only for websites, but it can be expanded to included VOIP and other protocols that are blocked.

Have the revolutions in the Middle East revealed any interesting new findings? 

Oh yes, certainly. For one, I never expected Egyptians to use my program. It’s always been known that Egypt was open and people wouldn’t need the program.

But suddenly, after the Arab Spring started and the revolution escalated, I realized that Facebook and Twitter were blocked in Egypt. That’s when it prompted a huge demand for a circumvention program in Egypt, and not many people knew about alkasir. I sent in a few links here and there, trying to help people, sometimes using Twitter, to help them understand there are different solutions, and that alkasir is one of them. During critical moments of this ban, the program helped enormously, according to certain people who were on the ground.

Now the biggest chunk of users is in Syria. I have lots of users there right now reporting to me on development issues, debugging concerns, etc., helping accelerate the pace of alkasir’s use there. They work with me to ensure that it’s reliable enough to withstand new methods of censorship that the government makes.

There are occasions when the website alkasir.com is blocked. When you can’t get downloads and updates through the website, the only way to do it is through email. So I send critical updates to people in Syria through a mailing list that people sign up for. People can send an email to get@alkasir.com and then they automatically receive the new updates. This way, they can update their program and will be able to connect once more. It’s a cat-and-mouse game.

In her recent TEDtalk, your sister talks about both the problems of Yemen, as well as a side of the country we don’t normally hear about in the news. What do you think of the current situation in Yemen?

We still have hope for change. The young people who have stayed in open-air arenas for over six months now, rallying for government change, are very determined.

However, increasingly there have been new means of oppression that have been introduced. One method that has been really hurtful in Yemen is the use of economy. The government has suspended salaries of anyone known to have been in any of those rallies. It is also inducing power outages, water shortages, fuel shortages, and others.

As protestors, you can’t do much about that. Yet the government has been blaming the protestors for this. It’s trying to pressure the revolutionaries by inflicting harm on the general public, and blaming those protestors. It’s a dirty and ruthless tactic, but dictators will do anything in their power to maintain their control. I have hope that change will happen, but it may be at a higher cost than we had all hoped for.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

Focus on helping others before helping yourself. That’s what’s rewarding in the long run.

I had occasions where I was invited to form a company, and turn alkasir into a commercial product. However, I felt that my obligation to helping people get the product was more important than my own commercial success. Not that commercial success is a bad thing, however.

I feel that focusing on helping improve services for others directly, and ensuring that you’re not tied to any commercial aspirations, yields unexpected benefits.

Do you worry about the risk your work poses to you and your family?

There’s always this risk, but life is full of risks. Luckily we are here in Sweden, a country that protects freedom, and is in fact a haven for all those working on areas of freedom of expression.

I feel that no matter what happens, right now, I’m already in the midst of this, so I can’t back down even if a particular incident happens. That’s the way authoritarian governments work. They try to frighten people by presenting threats that they think would deter activists. But if we ever do back down, then we are sending the message: “Ok, that’s the way to stop us. The more you oppress us, the less likely we are to continue.” That sends the wrong message, and that’s what we as activists have pledged never to do. We’ll never back down because of pressure or because of threats.

That’s a heavy burden to bear. Do you ever get discouraged?

Sometimes you have let downs, and you become frustrated by not much happening around you. But the TED Fellowship, in fact, motivated me on a personal level to keep fighting the fight.

When you get recognition of this nature, and are noticed, and people understand what you’re doing … it’s as if they are saying, “Go and do what you are doing, and we are applauding you and will help you out in whatever way we can.” That is of major importance and value to us activists. We want people to understand that what we’re doing is not bad. It’s not a threat to every government, though it can be a threat to certain governments. But they know why they are being threatened — because they are not respecting basic human rights.

We’re also ensuring that no matter where you live in the world, whether it’s a developing country or a developed country, you still have the same rights. TED was an opportunity to say, “Even though we come from developing countries, where there is much lower Internet penetration, people are eager to access information and to have their voices heard.”