Still, I knew there was another way: Over the next few weeks, I developed software that would allow users to access Yemen Portal—and all the other blocked sites—via a Web-based proxy. My actions did not go unnoticed; my car in Sana’a was vandalized, but by that time I had already returned to Sweden. I realized that the regime was willing to take violent action against me, but I refused to surrender to government blackmail.

Calling upon connections I had made while editing Yemen Times, I was able to draw attention to the regime’s repressive practices, with help from a number of organizations such as the World Association of Newspapers, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Article 19, and the Committee to Protect Bloggers.

A way around censorship

In 2009, as my cyber war with the Yemeni authorities intensified, I released a software solution named Alkasir (which means “the circumventor” in Arabic). I built it as a research tool for my PhD study on Internet censorship, but it has turned out to be useful to activists as well. The Alkasir software provides access to blocked websites anywhere in the world through an alternative tunnel that is encrypted. The Internet Service Provider cannot detect which blocked websites an Alkasir user is seeing, because traffic to and from censored websites goes through a tunnel to the proxy, which in turn retrieves the site’s content and delivers it to the user dynamically. Alkasir also helps users avoid detection, because it tunnels only blocked websites, while letting nonblocked content flow directly through the regular ISP.

While working on Alkasir, I stayed in touch with activists in Yemen and started to develop connections throughout the Arab world. Several wrote me from Tunisia, explaining how they used the software to circumvent censorship and upload content to websites that were blocked. I spread the word on alkasir.com.

As the world now knows, the activists were able to get their message out; the protests that followed the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi triggered the Tunisian revolution, which led to the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

A few weeks after the Tunisian uprising, on January 25, 2011, more than 1 million angry Egyptians filled the streets of Cairo, mobilized via social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. The next day, Egyptian authorities resorted to censoring social sites and jamming mobile network traffic. A Twitter search for the phrase “#jan25 proxy” on January 26 shows that many users were sharing information about censor circumvention tools, and I did what I could to help—via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail both to mailing lists and to fellow Arab activists. Alkasir traffic spiked. Activist Ahmed Zidan later said in a CNN interview how important Alkasir was for him and others to retain access to social networking websites that proved crucial in the Egyptian revolution.

My contribution was modest, compared to the sacrifices made by those on the scene. Nonetheless, I feel a sense of satisfaction in knowing that I was able to help the Arab Spring protesters access the Internet and publish content during the uprising. Meanwhile, closer to home, in February of this year longtime Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, my late father’s nemesis, finally stepped down.

As my dad taught me, access to information is power. I am confident that if he were alive today, he would have supported the Arab youth struggle for freedom and helped integrate technology into the newsroom to support a free and open flow of information to the public.

There is a lot yet to be done before the Arab world is free from tyranny and oppression. Cyber censorship remains in Syria, Iran, China, and other countries. It has become vital for activists to access blocked content. I hope my father would be proud that my software now has tens of thousands of users in countries struggling with online censorship. I dedicate all my work to his memory.

 

Walid Al-Saqaf is completing his PhD at Sweden's Orebro University, which awarded him the 2010 Democracy Award. He was the first Yemeni ever to receive the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship and is currently a Senior TED fellow