Netsweeper, a Canadian company that sells internet filtering software to telecoms and governments internationally, says it has disabled a filtering category aimed at blocking LGBTQ content amid a campaign by rights groups.
Netsweeper’s clients include the United Arab Emirates, where same-sex relations are effectively criminalized, Toronto-based research hub the Citizen Lab previously found. In particular, the UAE was found to be using a pre-set filtering category in Netsweeper’s technology called “Alternative Lifestyles.” The software blocked HIV/AIDS prevention sites, as well as civil rights content, the Citizen Lab reported.
“As of December 25th, 2018, Netsweeper no longer has a category titled LGBTQ+ nor does it block such content,” Lou Erdelyi, Netsweeper’s chief technology office, told Motherboard in an email. “We do not have a category called ‘Alternative Lifestyles’ any longer, nor do we categorize or make public any classifications that discriminate against a particular group of people,” he clarified in a follow-up email.
The apparent removal of the filtering category occurred amid an ongoing international campaign by LGBTQ rights groups All Out and R3D calling on Netwsweeper to “stop censoring “LGBT+ content.” According to Yuri Guaiana, senior campaigns manager at All Out, the campaign reached out to Netsweeper prior to the campaign’s December 13 launch, but still hasn’t received a reply from the company.
While All Out says it’s “encouraging” that Netsweeper claims to have taken action, the organization wants verification.
“We will need the Citizen Lab to verify that statement before taking any decision on the campaign,” Guiaiana said. “We would like to hear from Netsweeper too and have further reassurance that they have policies in place to make sure their technology isn't used to violate internationally recognized human rights."
Guaiana said that, in the UAE, “online spaces are crucially important to find support, to get to know each other, and [to] try to find some relief from a very hostile and dangerous environment that they find themselves living in.”
When asked if a client could still locally configure Netsweeper’s software to filter LGBTQ content, even without the pre-set filter category, Erdelyi responded that Netsweeper “cannot control how a person uses the tool,” although the company “[discourages] users from using the tool inappropriately” whenever possible.
In a statement, the Citizen Lab welcomed the news that Netsweeper says it has eliminated the “Alternative Lifestyles” category. But it questioned how Netsweeper defines “inappropriate” uses of its technology, and what oversight processes are in place to ensure Netsweeper clients respect human rights.
“Netsweeper documentation clearly shows that customers are still able to block content from entire countries,” the Citizen Lab told Motherboard, “which we find inconsistent with Netsweeper’s claims that they do not have classifications that ‘discriminate against a particular group of people.’”
“The Citizen Lab intends to continue conducting technical analysis into this issue to see how this policy change impacts universally protected speech,” the statement said.
The Citizen Lab found last year that Netsweeper’s technology does more than filter LGBTQ content; internet providers used it to block media websites in Yemen and religious content in Bahrain, the Citizen Lab reported.
Both the Citizen Lab and the campaign by All Out and R3D are calling on the Canadian government to do more to ensure that homegrown technology isn’t used to violate human rights around the world. Netsweeper has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the Canadian government over the years.
Guaiana said that the campaign reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office in December and was told that the situation with Netsweeper would be looked into. Spokespeople for the PMO were not immediately available to respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
“We ask the Canadian government to acknowledge the use of Netsweeper to block LGBT+ content, as well as condemnation of it,” said Miles Kenyon, a spokesperson for the Citizen Lab, in a phone call. “We’d like the government to take specific and measurable actions to prevent censorship, and to affirm that filtering technology providers have a responsibility to respect the human rights of LGBT+ people in Canada and around the world.”
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