When tyrants pull on their jackboots to stamp out free speech online, they reach for... er, a Canadian software biz?

Web scrubber accused of ignoring obligation to mitigate misuse of its code

22 Reg comments Got Tips?

Netsweeper, a maker of online-content-filtering software in Canada, has been called out for allowing its tools to aid internet censorship.

Citizen Lab, a security and human rights research group run out of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, on Wednesday published a report on the use of Netsweeper in 10 countries cited for systematic human rights problems.

According to Professor Ronald Deibert, who runs Citizen Lab, "Netsweeper’s services can easily be abused to help facilitate draconian controls on the public sphere by stifling access to information and freedom of expression."

The Citizen Lab report looks at Netsweeper deployments in Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen, in an effort to explore censorship practices and the technology that enables them.

Acknowledging that Netsweeper's content filtering may have legitimate uses, the report finds that the technology is being used to block content protected under international frameworks related to religion, politics and free expression.

The software, the report says, is being used to block Google searches for LGBTQ-related keywords and to block non-pornographic websites by mischaracterizing them as sexually explicit.

Negative impacts

The report questions "whether and to what degree Netsweeper undertakes due diligence with respect to sales of its technology to jurisdictions with problematic rights records, and whether the Canadian government should be assisting Netsweeper, financially or otherwise, when its systems are used in a manner that negatively impacts internationally-recognized human rights."

Last month, the research and advocacy group issued a similar report taking network firm Sandvine to task.

Netsweeper, contacted by Citizen Lab in advance of the publication of its report, said in a letter that it cannot be blamed for how its software is configured.

"Netsweeper cannot prevent an end-user from manually overriding its software," the company said. "This a dilemma shared by every major developer of IT solutions including globally renowned corporations that make the internet work."


Technology companies have a long history of turning a blind eye to ethical considerations when there are revenue consequences, a policy that might be described as "I was only fulfilling orders."

IBM provided the computational heft to solve for the Final Solution. Volkswagen figured cheating on emissions tests would be worth a few shortened lives. Cisco has been accused of helping China deploy technology to oppress dissidents. Apple is content to champion privacy in the US while acceding to government demands to remove VPN software in China. Google and Facebook have happily accepted ads without asking questions about their purpose or provenance. And just about every major hardware maker using contract manufacturing firms abroad has had to confront claims of labor abuse by suppliers or environmental disregard.

Netsweeper, which previously sued Deibert and the University of Toronto for defamation, only to later drop the lawsuit, takes a similar line, arguing that denying dictators desired tools would make them disconnect with the world.

"The ultimate effect of what Mr Diebert and his interests propose would be the full-scale shut down of the internet in multiple jurisdictions worldwide," the company contends.


Deibert begs to differ with that proposition. "In fact, by encouraging more transparency, accountability, and proportionality around Internet censorship, we are aiming to do precisely the opposite," he said.

Netsweeper insists it abides by Canadian law and the law in countries where it operates.

But Deibert would hold the company to international law, routinely flouted by governments and businesses when inconvenient.

"Access to information is a human right recognized under international law – yet one that many governments defy in practice through extensive Internet censorship," he states. "By facilitating these practices, Netsweeper is profiting from the dark curtain being drawn over the Internet for a large number of users around the world."

And in this Netsweeper is not alone. ®


Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020