A Canadian Company Is Blocking LGBTQ Content for Censorious Regimes

Netsweeper is blocking content in 30 countries, according to a new report from Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab.
April 25, 2018, 5:53pm
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Pride event in 2017. Photo: Flickr/Ontario Liberal Caucus

Canada is often seen as a beacon of hope for human rights and a free internet as the US continues to roil under the leadership of Donald Trump, but a new report from University of Toronto-based research hub Citizen Lab should help dissuade anyone from that notion.

According to the report, which was published on Wednesday, a Canadian internet company called Netsweeper is censoring LGBTQ web content and other content protected under international conventions on behalf of numerous regimes with atrocious human rights records.

Netsweeper, based in Waterloo, Ontario, has been on Citizen Lab’s radar for several years. The research group has previously published reports that linked the internet content filtering company to the governments of Bahrain, Yemen (which is in a state of civil war), and more. Citizen Lab’s latest report used a suite of detection tools to uncover Netsweeper installations in 30 different countries, including 10 that have “raised systemic human rights concerns”: Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

According to Citizen Lab’s findings, Netsweeper filtering solutions blocked media sites in Yemen, political campaigns in the UAE, and religious content in Bahrain. But particularly troubling is Netsweeper’s “alternative lifestyles” blocking category, “which appears to have as one of its principal purposes the blocking of non-pornographic LGBTQ content, including that offered by civil rights and advocacy organizations, HIV/AIDS prevention organizations, and LGBTQ media and cultural groups,” the report states.

“Given that Canada’s foreign policy has put gender equity issues prominently at the top of its agenda, obviously this is something we wanted to highlight here: That you have a Canadian company actively undermining those rights abroad by facilitating censorship in countries where those rights aren’t respected or recognized,” Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, told me over the phone.

Notably, Citizen Lab also found instances where unintended content—for example, the World Health Organization’s website in Yemen—was blocked by Netsweeper’s tools due to miscategorization. This, Deibert told me over the phone, highlights online censorship’s “inherent” tendency to miscategorize and block all sorts of websites. Something similar was seen in the UK in 2013: After the government asked ISPs to block pornography sites, legitimate sexual health education portals were also caught up in the censorship.

Netsweeper did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment. In a response to Citizen Lab’s report (published by the research hub), the company argued that it can’t prevent local users from manually customizing their filtering software, a version of which is also marketed towards schools. According to Citizen Lab, however, researchers conducted a “beacon box” test that showed Netsweeper has ongoing interactions with local software in countries where it’s deployed, indicating it should be aware when software is being misused.

“They have a responsibility to correct things like this when they happen,” Deibert said.

Netsweeper’s activities—which Citizen Lab argues fall short of meeting international human rights obligations and UN guidelines for businesses—are the latest sign that Canada’s sunny rhetoric isn’t matching up with its actions. Indeed, the Canadian government financially supported and promoted Netsweeper for over a decade. The National Research Council, for example, supported Netsweeper with four grants between 2005 and 2013 totaling $469,484 CAD, per an NRC spokesperson.

"While the rigorous, independent assessment process for contributions includes an ethical screening and if warranted full review, the ultimate end-use of innovations in a commercial setting is determined by firms and the end-users of their technology," an NRC spokesperson wrote Motherboard in an email. Firms applying for the Industrial Research Assistance Program are stringently vetted by the NRC, the spokesperson added, for everything from financial viability to ethical guidelines. "Funding from the Industrial Research Assistance Program has helped thousands of small and medium sized businesses in Canada develop and bring to market new innovative products and services, creating jobs for Canadians," the spokesperson wrote.

According to Citizen Lab's Deibert, the Canadian government can be doing a lot more to ensure homegrown tech isn't used for shady ends abroad.

“What we recommend that [the government] could be doing is to impose some regulatory standard on the company,” Deibert said. “In other words, they'd have to go through an export licensing process that would tie their ability to get a license to Netsweeper undertaking certain kinds of due diligence.”

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Update: This article was updated to include comment from the National Research Council.