The Sheherezade Bar in the Al Rasheed hotel has become a hangout for many journalists in Baghdad. That's not because of any libations served there. (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government banned alcohol in public places several years ago.) Rather, it's because of what it says on the cardboard sign at the front door.
"Internet Center No. 23" it announces. Behind the bar, there are 13 brand new PC's with color monitors. For 2,000 Iraqi Dinar (about $1), you can spend an hour or so surfing the Web via uruklink.net — Iraq's own portal on the Internet.
AOL it's not. Access to secure content is strictly forbidden. No Hotmail. No checking your bank balance. If you so much as try to have a peek at your frequent flyer miles, a message quickly pops up: "Your access has been denied."
The filtering of content doesn't stop there. Type "Israel" into the Google search engine and you get the same rude message. Iraq does not recognize Israel's right to exist. In fact, Iraqis don't even like using the name "Israel." They refer to the place instead as the "Zionist Entity."
No go for "CIA" either. Or for any porn sites.
The software that blocks access to sites the Iraqi deems objectionable is produced by an American company: 8e6 Technologies, based in Orange, Calif., even though Eric Lundbohm of 8e6 denies they have sold their product to an Iraqi entity.
Alternate Points of View Need Not Log On
The censoring used to be worse. For a time, 8e6 helped the Iraqis block access to many foreign news sites. Often we'd gain access to a site on one day, only to find it blocked the next. The government apparently didn't want to risk that even visitors to this country would hear alternative points of view.
Many journalists complained. Now, at least at Internet Center No. 23, we are miraculously able to get broadband access to ABCNEWS.com, the BBC, the New York Times, and others without any problem. Except for any streaming video or audio, that is. For some reason, that still remains a state secret, kept by 8e6.
A colleague of mine, a cameraman for CBS, has even discovered a way around the ban on sending e-mails through the server. He goes to news sites, clicks the "E-mail this article to a friend" icon, and types long messages into the little box.
The rest of us surf the news sites at the Internet center, but send e-mails over our satellite telephones at the Ministry of Information. It is an imperfect solution, because a satellite phone call costs as much as $8 per minute and the connection speed is 115K.
If we kept up on the news that way, we'd quickly hear about it from our bosses.
Pricey Access Offers Many Restrictions, Scrutiny
According to the CIA World Factbook's entry on Iraq (accessed at great expense over the sat phone), an estimated 12,000 people in Iraq are connected to the Internet. In a country of 24 million, they are the privileged few.
Government officials and academics are allowed to open their own accounts. But it's not cheap. The monthly fee for home service is in the neighborhood of 50,000 Iraqi Dinars ($25) per month. In a nation where a university professor is lucky to earn $120 a month, that's a significant sum.
And for what? It's clear that the restrictions on home users would be even more onerous than the ones on foreign journalists. Anyone with an uruklink.net e-mail account can also be sure that all messages are carefully scrutinized.
Recently, a journalist turned the tables. A reporter for Wired hacked into Saddam Hussein's e-mail account — or at least into his "Send mail to" link on the official Iraq Web site.
The reporter found that the messages fell into three broad categories: foreigners expressing sympathy for Saddam, foreigners expressing outrage and hostility at him, and companies trying to flatter him in the hope of winning business contracts.
Apparently, in at least in one respect the Iraqi president is not above the law. His inbox had reached its size limit.