Canadian Internet-filtering company accused of aiding censorship in Yemen
University of Toronto Citizen Lab report alleges Netsweeper Inc.’s filtering technology used to deepen web censorship in Yemen amidst civil war.
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Internet-filtering software from a Canadian company is cutting people in Yemen off from crucial information during a time of war, a new report from the University of Toronto alleges.
Researchers at the Citizen Lab, an Internet-monitoring project at the Munk School of Global Affairs, say technology sold by Waterloo-based Netsweeper Inc. is increasingly being used to restrict access to websites on Yemen’s state-owned Internet service provider, YemenNet.
Researchers said there has been “a major expansion of Yemen’s censorship regime” since opposition Houthi rebels overtook the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014.
Websites that provide political content critical of the Houthis, independent media reports and several high-level Israeli domains have all been blocked, according to the report.
Qatar- and Saudi Arabia-owned media networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were also blocked.
The research, conducted over the last 10 months in collaboration with a Yemen-based researcher, “is essentially like an MRI of Netsweeper in Yemen,” said Citizen Lab director Ronald Deibert.
“The type of content that was targeted for filtering increased and broadened,” Deibert told Torstar News Service in a phone interview Wednesday morning.
Deibert said that when certain websites were blocked, especially for controversial political reasons, fake network error pages, such as an a 404 error page, were being sent back to users. “That’s really deceitful . . . . It’s trying to mislead people,” he said.
Deibert said Netsweeper did not respond to specific questions researchers sent the company on Oct. 9.
Netsweeper did not immediately return the Star’s phone and e-mail requests for comment on the Citizen Lab report.
On its website, the company says its web-filtering technologies “enable jurisdictions to filter or block inappropriate or illegal web content and malicious, web-borne threats before subscriber Internet requests are processed.”
Netsweeper’s service relies on artificial intelligence to categorize websites based on users’ Internet patterns. This function is “dynamically updated in real time,” the company says.
According to Deibert, this means that Netsweeper “is not just passing along a tool and then wiping their hands of it.
“Part of the service is to dynamically engage with web activity inside a country through an ISP [Internet service provider]. So they can’t say, ‘Hey, we’re agnostic about how this is used, it’s not our responsibility.’”
The Citizen Lab reported in 2011 that Netsweeper technology was being used to censor the Internet in Yemen, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
A year later, the company was embroiled in controversy after Australian telecom Telstra admitted to tracking websites its users visited and giving the information to Netsweeper.
Citizen Lab reported in 2013 that Netsweeper also sold web surveillance technology to Pakistan.
The war in Yemen, which pits Houthi rebels and their allies against an international, Saudi-led coalition backing deposed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has ravaged the country. More than 5,500 people were killed and more than 26,500 others injured between Mar. 19 and Oct. 11, the World Health Organization reported this month.
About 1.4 million Yemenis have been internally displaced by the fighting and citizens in many parts of the country struggle to access fuel, food, clean water and medical supplies.
In this context, Deibert said, blocking Yemenis’ access to information could have humanitarian consequences. For example, civilians can be put at increased risk when news reports about pending air strikes are filtered out.
Canadian companies such as Netsweeper should follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Deibert said. In Yemen, Netsweeper could restrict how its product is used or withdraw its services altogether as the armed conflict continues, he added.
“What they should do, is have a policy about what to do in circumstances like this. I think, personally-speaking, it’s objectionable that a company would continue providing services to an armed rebel group that’s under UN sanctions and has as their slogan, ‘Death to America. Death to Israel. A curse upon the Jews,’ ” Deibert said.
“It’s a worst-case scenario of lack of any due diligence around corporate social responsibility.”