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Canadian firm sells Bahrain software used to censor Internet

Report says Internet filtering technology exported from Canada being used to block political, news and human rights websites in Bahrain
The Citizen Lab report stated that the blocked websites included those belonging to Bahraini opposition movements (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada – Website-blocking technology sold by a Canadian company to the government of Bahrain has been used to censor critical political speech, news and opposition websites, and human rights content, a University of Toronto report says.

Internet filtering technologies developed by Netsweeper Inc. were identified on nine internet service providers (ISPs) in Bahrain, stated the report, Tender Confirmed, Rights At Risk: Verifying Netsweeper in Bahrain.

At least one of the Netsweeper installations was being used to filter content from Internet users in Bahrain, according to researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, which produced the report.

Based in Waterloo, Canada, Netsweeper Inc. manufactures and sells web filtering software, among other Internet technologies.

“They’re selling Internet filtering services that will be deployed at a national level, in other words on public-facing internet service providers, to a country that has a track record of censoring content that’s protected under international human rights laws and norms,” said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab.

“That raises obvious human rights concerns and corporate social responsibility concerns,” Deibert told Middle East Eye.

Blocking political content

Bahrain has cracked down on opposition movements and human rights activists since a popular uprising broke out in 2011 amid a string of similar revolutionary movements in the region.

Bahraini human rights activists have been imprisoned and forced into exile due to the pressure exerted by the Bahraini government on their activities, which have centred on a call for equality and fair political representation in the Gulf country.

The Citizen Lab report stated that the blocked websites included those belonging to Bahraini opposition movements al-Wefaq, Bahrain Freedom Movement, and February 14, as well as human rights groups like the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

Iranian media outlet Al-Alam, and Al-Manar, a Beirut-based outlet affiliated with Lebanese group Hezbollah, were also blocked, as was independent, Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

The technologies are believed to have become active in Bahrain between May and July of this year, the report stated.

That is “a few months after the release of a public tender by Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in January 2016 indicating Netsweeper won a bid to provide a ‘national website filtering solution’”.

That contract was worth either US $1.1m or US $3.1m, researchers said.

Testing the system

Citizen Lab researchers conducted several tests to determine whether and how Netsweeper technologies were deployed in Bahrain.

Among the various methods, researchers used what was called a “beacon box” test, in which they set up a new domain to see whether the local Netsweeper system in Bahrain would communicate with Netsweeper, Inc., to categorise the websites for filtration.

When a web user in Bahrain enters a website address, the Netsweeper system will categorise it to determine whether or not it falls under a predetermined censorship category.

If it falls within one of those categories, the user in Bahrain will received a block page and will not be able to access the website, Deibert explained.

But when a user enters the address to an uncategorised website – such as, in this case, the newly-registered domain – the local system must contact the master database controlled by Netsweeper, Inc., in order to determine whether or not the website should be censored.

Since Citizen Lab owned the domain of the test website, it could see the visitors through the server logs, Deibert said.

The researchers had someone in Bahrain attempt to visit the website, and they found that two out of three tested ISPs “exhibited behaviour consistent with previous instances of Netsweeper Inc.-controlled infrastructure”.

“The idea there was to confirm that Netsweeper infrastructures are dynamically interacting with user requests coming from within the country,” Deibert explained.

“The reason we do that is to rule out the possibility the company could say, ‘Look we just deliver this stuff to the customers, this technology, and then we have no idea what’s going on.’”

Widespread use of Netsweeper technologies

Netsweeper CEO Perry Roach and COO Alain Gagné did not respond to MEE’s request for comment in time for publication.

On its website, the company states that governmental bodies are increasingly “taking more responsibility and controlling what information is available and being viewed on the Internet within their region or country”.

“Taking control of this resource for the protection of the greater population is termed Lawful Interception. Implementing Netsweeper at a national level and government owned Telcos enables legislative bodies to enforce safe and positive Internet environments,” the company says.

According to previous Citizen Lab reports, Netsweeper’s Internet filtering technologies have also been identified on national ISPs in Qatar, Kuwait and Yemen, as well as in Somalia and Pakistan.

The company’s website filters were deployed at the behest of the Houthi rebel group in Yemen to block political websites and independent media websites, according to a Citizen Lab report released last year. The filters in Yemen also blocked all websites on the top Israeli-owned .il domain.

But the company received government funding in Canada as recently as four years ago.

In 2012, the National Research Council of Canada, a governmental organisation that supports research and development programmes and projects, provided Netsweeper with a $46,430 (CAD) grant.

Earlier this month, Netsweeper also participated in an IT trade show in Dubai, GITEX Technology Week. The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, a branch of the Canadian ministry of foreign affairs, promoted the event on its website.

‘Canadian values’

Asked about the allegations contained in the Citizen Lab report, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said, “Canada is committed to working with our partners to ensure the Internet is kept open, safe, and accessible”.

“We support the promotion of human rights and free speech online. We expect Canadian businesses to operate lawfully and according to Canadian values,” Austin Jean told MEE in an email.

“We cannot comment on services provided to specific businesses due to commercial confidentiality,” Jean added.

According to Deibert, while Netsweeper is not breaking any Canadian laws by selling its Internet filtering technologies to countries like Bahrain, “that’s precisely part of the problem”.

Deibert said Netsweeper is undermining Canadian values by selling to countries and authorities that have horrible human rights records, including Bahrain, “one of the world’s worst censors of the Internet”.

“We project ourselves as being a country that’s supportive of human rights, and here we have a company that in actually profiting by the undermining of those values,” Deibert said.

“Clearly this is something that has to be addressed critically and the way to do it is to put in place export controls that say if you want to sell this technology abroad, you have to follow these guidelines.”