Netsweeper Under Fire for Helping Countries Crack Down on Free Speech

Canadian firm NetSweeper is finding itself at the centre of controversy. News has surfaced that it is helping other countries censor the Internet.

It’s a rather difficult political debate to have. Should companies be able to sell censorship or surveillance tools to countries who have been accused of cracking down on human rights? It’s a debate that has similarities to companies that sell arms to governments who also have faced accusations of cracking down on human rights.

Citizen Lab is accusing the company of selling tools used to censor the Internet to at least 10 countries where Internet censorship is prevalent. Among the findings are evidence of censorship revolving around the terms “gay” and “lesbian” on Google, websites related to abortions, the World Health Organization (which was accused of being a pornography website), alternative lifestyles, and opposition viewpoints revolving around a civil war. From the CBC:

Filtering technology is frequently used by schools, libraries and businesses around the world to restrict access to a wide range of content, including pornography, pirated content, phishing schemes, or hate speech.

But some governments have also required internet service providers to use the technology in an effort to curb access to what countries like Pakistan call “undesirable websites” — usually content critical of the government in power, or in opposition to prevailing religious or cultural sensibilities.

The Citizen Lab researchers argue that imposing such restrictions across a region or entire country can pose serious human rights concerns.

“Canada is a country that’s defined by its values. This is a Canadian company headquartered here,” said Ron Deibert, the lab’s director and co-author of the new report on the investigation.

“We should expect more of Canadian companies — and the Canadian government, frankly.”

Netsweeper, for its part, denies the reports. They say that they have no ability to guard against whenever a client misuses its technology.

Of course, in the course of our research into this story, it turns out that this is not the first time NetSweeper faced accusations of assisting other countries to help them crack down on free speech online. In 2016, the company was accused of helping Bahrain of censoring websites. From one report back then:

The report, released early this morning by the internet surveillance research group, says the Waterloo-based company won a tender in January to provide a website filtering system for the Bahraini government.

Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab, said his team carried out a number of tests, both remotely and with help from people inside Bahrain, to see if Netsweeper’s filtering technology was being used there.

He said they were able to verify that the company’s technology was present on several internet service providers in Bahrain in May and July.

“There’s no doubt whatsoever that Netsweeper is being rolled out across the country of Bahrain,” he said.

While many eyes are on the Canadian government, these latest reports come at a very awkward time for the government. Back in January, we extensively covered efforts by the film and TV industry to get Canadian regulators to censor the Internet without court oversight. While Canadians are pushing back hard on the idea, organizations in the music industry are pushing for Internet censorship in the copyright review process.

We did some digging and couldn’t find much of a response from the Canadian government. A possibility is that they want to tread lightly on the subject because it is unlikely they want people to draw parallels to the NetSweeper story and the censorship debate already swelling in Canada. Anything they say about the NetSweeper story could very easily come back and bite them should they opt to move ahead with Internet censorship in Canada.

At this stage, it is likely that Netsweeper is hoping this story will blow over. This in spite of how controversial a topic like this can be. It will be interesting to see if that happens or if there will be some collateral damage in the debate.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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