Canada has been one of the most vocal of western nations in condemning the use of online censorship around the world. Which makes the recent report by online watchdog Citizen Lab into the use of censorship in Bahrain all the more embarrassing.
Because they have reported that company which helps the Bahraini government censor online news and opposition websites is called Netsweeper Inc. and is based in, you guessed it, Canada.
The report is pretty clear in its conclusions. It said that Netsweeper won the contract in January of this year and that they have confirmed the presence of their technology on no fewer than 9 of Bahrain’s ISPs. This is suspected to be part of a roll-out which it being used across the entire country before too much longer.
What is Netsweeper?
So what exactly does Netsweepers technology do for the Bahraini regime? Well, it is essentially an internet filter which can be used to block whatever content a government does not want its citizens to be accessing online.
In Bahrain, Netsweeper is being used to block gambling and pornographic sites which are perceived as going against Islamic law. That is perhaps to be expected in an Islamic country and sites which are critical of Islam are of course also blocked.
But Citizen Lab has also found evidence that it is also being used to filter political content (particularly content related to the political opposition), human rights content, local and regional news sites, and Shiite sites (Bahrain is a Sunni country).
As well as filtering this content, there was also evidence to show that the Netsweeper technology in Bahrain was still being communicated with by Netsweeper HQ. This suggests that they are playing an active role in the filtering process in Bahrain and cannot claim to have simply sold a product to the Bahraini government.
Needless to say, Netsweeper has not responded to requests for comment about the report, despite it receiving considerable interest in the Canadian media.
However, Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, was fairly forthright in his comments about the report’s findings.
“There are major human rights violations in [Bahrain] that will be further aggravated by implementing national-level internet censorship of this sort,” he said. “Is Netsweeper benefiting financially by helping a country trample human rights? [If so, that] puts them at odds with our country’s position on human rights internationally,”
The Canadian Government has not commented on the report as such, but Global Affairs Canada, which is a government body running a trade event which Netsweeper is due to participate in stated that all Canadian businesses should “operate lawfully and according to Canadian values.”
Corporate Social Responsibility
As Ron Deibert touched on, the big issue here is one of corporate social responsibility. Is a private company willing to profit from employing its technology to undermine the human rights of a country’s population?
Given that the evidence against Netsweeper in Bahrain is pretty clear cut, and another report by Citizen lab earlier this year highlighted their similar role in Yemen, it seems that is their case the answer to that is, yes.
Which then raises the political question of whether this is something the Canadian Government should intervene on. They have been forthright in their condemnation of online censorship overseas. Yet a company in their own back yard is facilitating it, and profiting from it.
That is embarrassing for sure. But are they willing to put their money where their mouth is, and take steps to stop a Canadian business acting in this way?
Sadly for the people of Bahrain, who continue to be denied their right to a free and open internet, the answer to this question is still very much up in the air.