To censor the internet, 10 countries use Canadian filtering technology, researchers say

Ahmed Mansoor has been threatened, spied on, and beaten — all payback, the human rights activist believes, for his outspoken criticism of the United Arab Emirates’ numerous human rights violations, and its soaring crackdowns on dissent.

His activism ended with his arrest — but started, he has said, with the censorship of his popular online discussion forum. Experts now say it was blocked with help from Canadian technology that has repeatedly found itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

As part of a globe-spanning investigation released Wednesday, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab say they have found fresh evidence that internet-filtering technology developed by Waterloo, Ont.-based Netsweeper is being used in 10 countries to censor access to news, religious content, LGBTQ+ resources, and political campaigns.

India and Pakistan, both parliamentary democracies, are two notable entries in a list of regimes that includes the UAE.

I was surprised to find India on the list. Coming from a country that literally breathes internet  … I think people would be disappointed with that.– Ritu Sarin , executive editor and head of investigations, Indian Express

Among the findings:

  • Google searches for the keywords “gay” and “lesbian” were blocked in the UAE, Bahrain, and Yemen if accessed over an unencrypted connection.
  • Websites under the category “abortions” were entirely blocked in Kuwait.
  • The World Health Organization was miscategorized as pornography in the UAE and Kuwait.
  • Websites hosting political news, opinion, and criticism were blocked in Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, and Somalia.
  • In Yemen, Houthi rebels have restricted access to competing information about the country’s civil war.

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.

(Philip Street/CBC News)

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.”

Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, says the Canadian government should add network filtering technologies like Netsweeper’s to its list of ‘dual use’ technologies. It regulates the export of such goods.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Netsweeper CEO Perry Roach told CBC in a phone conversation that Citizen Lab’s previous reports about his company were “bullshit.” He declined multiple requests for an interview and has yet to answer detailed questions about the researchers’ latest findings.

Filtering in the world’s biggest democracy

India, the world’s biggest democracy, blocked nearly 1,200 unique URLs — more than any other country that Citizen Lab tested. Those URLs included coverage of the Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis by Al Jazeera and the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, where historical snapshots of websites are stored.

Facebook groups discussing the refugee crisis were also meant to be blocked, but were likely still accessible over encrypted connections.

CBC News partnered with journalists at the Indian Express newspaper, based in Mumbai, who worked with Citizen Lab to conduct their own testing to see which sites were blocked.

“The emphasis used to be on porn sites and game sites and now it has shifted to national security,” said Ritu Sarin, executive editor and head of investigations for the Indian Express. “Human rights groups and NGOs are also blocked, or have been blocked.”

“I was surprised to find India on the list,” she said. “Coming from a country that literally breathes internet … I think people would be disappointed with that.”

Netsweeper has always insisted the technology it sells worldwide is “content neutral.” There are preset filters for gambling and pornography and a custom filter for operators to add their own sites. But the company says it does not advise its customers on what to block and has disputed the notion that it bears any responsibility for how its product is used.

In an emailed statement, Netsweeper’s legal counsel, Christos Vitsentzatos, wrote that the company “cannot prevent an end-user from manually overriding its software.”

‘Alternative lifestyles’

Citizen Lab researchers say Netsweeper’s filtering technology has also been deployed in several countries with records of human rights violations: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen and Somalia.

An anti-government protester, seen in 2012, stands in front of riot police while photographing other demonstrators in Manama, Bahrain. The report found Google searches for the keywords “gay” and “lesbian” were blocked in Bahrain and other countries. It also found Bahrain blocked political news, opinion and criticism.(Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

The UAE allegedly uses a preset category called “alternative lifestyles” to block websites of LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, news, and educational resources, including Human Rights Campaign and The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. The category is described by Netsweeper as a filter for content relating to “the full range of non-traditional sexual practices, interests and orientations.”

Deibert said that by providing a filter designed to restrict access to LGBTQ+ related content, Netsweeper “is effectively helping to service a violation of human rights.”

Vitsentzatos, the company’s lawyer, refuted that. “Netsweeper has always and remains fully compliant with Canadian law and in those countries where it has ongoing concerns,” he said in a statement.

Citizen Lab also found that outspoken UAE human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor’s blog and discussion forum Emirati Dialogue were blocked.

Mansoor has spent the past year in prison — detained incommunicado in an unknown location — and is now on trial for allegedly violating the country’s cybercrime laws. According to Al Jazeera, the government alleges he used his social media accounts to publish “false information” and “spread hatred and sectarianism.”

“The imperative should be to make sure your technology isn’t having an impact on innocent people,” says Kristina Stockwood, a Canadian who chairs the board for the Gulf Center for Human Rights, whose website Citizen Lab says is also blocked in the UAE. She knows Mansoor, who was also a member of the centre’s board.

While some governments might say they need the technology to crack down on bad actors, “really, what they’re doing is they’re rounding up the good guys,” Stockwood says.

‘This weapon also kills society’

Mohamed al Saqr, a former prosecutor who fled the UAE after being forced to retire early because of his views, said that Canada and its partners are complicit in the suppression of free expression.

“Like the countries that sell weapons, weapons kill. But in a different way, this weapon also kills society,” said al Saqr. “So it is participating in muzzling the voices of oppressed people.”

The government of Canada regulates the export of technologies that might be considered dual use — that is, technology that can be used for perfectly benign purposes, but also abused.

Traditionally, this meant military technology such as helicopters and light armored vehicles, but has come to include spyware and other digital surveillance tools. Network filtering technology is not on the list. Citizen Lab has called for updated regulations that would include it.

Citizen Lab has also recommended the Canadian government mandate public transparency reports, ongoing due diligence, and prohibitions against unethical activities as a condition of federal and provincial funding — such as the grants of more than $ 300,000 Netsweeper has received from the National Research Council.

Global Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland declined a request for an interview. Instead, a Global Affairs spokesperson reiterated to CBC News that the government would “continue to engage with our partners on the review of this type of technology.”​

Some companies have refused to sell their technology to certain countries out of concern that they may be abused, or include terms in their product agreements that prohibit misuse. Others publish corporate social responsibility and human rights policies on their websites.

In one case, Websense — now known as Forcepoint — barred ISPs in Yemen from using its filtering service after finding they were used for censorship.

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