As part of an investigation released last Wednesday, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab claim that Netsweeper internet-filtering technology is being used in 10 countries to censor access to news, religious content, pornography, LGBTQ+ resources and political sites.
According to the report, Citizen Lab identified 30 countries with Netsweeper installations, and 10 of these countries are actively censoring at least one area of the internet on a national level using consumer-facing ISPs: Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen.
Among the report’s major findings was the prevalence of miscategorization as a means to censor important resources. For example, the World Health Organization was miscategorized as pornography in the UAE and Kuwait.
“We identified a pattern of mischaracterization and/or over blocking involving the use of Netsweeper’s systems that may have serious human rights implications, including blocking Google searches for keywords related to LGBTQ identities and blocking non-pornographic websites in various countries on the basis of an apparent miscategorization of these sites as ‘Pornography'”
Two of the countries on the list are parliamentary democracies, India and Pakistan, and the use of Netsweeper may not be widely known in these countries, according to CBC News. “I was surprised to find India on the list. Coming from a country that literally breathes internet… I think people would be disappointed with that,” commented Ritu Sarin, executive editor and head of investigations for Indian Express.
“The emphasis [in India] used to be on porn sites and game sites and now it has shifted to national security. Human rights groups and NGOs are also blocked, or have been blocked.”
The world’s largest democracy blocked more URLs than any other country in Citizen Lab’s study, with over 1,200 web pages blocked in India, including various news articles on Al Jazeera and The Telegraph. According to the Citizen Lab report, India also attempted to block various YouTube channels, Facebook groups and Twitter accounts covering the refugee crisis, although all were still accessible over encrypted connections. The country went as far as blocking the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
A number of countries using Netsweeper have records of human rights violations, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen.
The UAE allegedly uses a Netsweeper preset category called “alternative lifestyles.” While the category is described by Netsweeper as a filter for content relating to “the full range of non-traditional sexual practices, interests and orientations,” Citizen Labs contends its real use is to block sites of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and educations resources, including Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab, described this type of censorship to CBC as “effectively helping to service a violation of human rights.”
Deibert and the Citizen Lab team raised the alarm on Bahrain’s censorship in 2016 after carrying out a series of tests remotely and with help from people inside the country.
“Bahrain is one of the world’s most autocratic countries,” Deibert told CBC. “There are major human rights violations in the country that will be further aggravated by implementing national-level internet censorship of this sort.”
Despite Citizen Labs’ tests that show internet service providers have rolled Netsweeper out across entire countries, the Canadian company remains adamant that it is not responsible for how customers use the software. Netsweeper is intended to block inappropriate or dangerous websites at libraries, schools and other public institution, but the software can easily be misused to block access to any URL over a designated network.
According to CBC, Netsweeper CEO Perry Roach called Citizen Lab’s previous reports about his company “bullshit,” and he declined multiple requests to answer questions about the researchers’ latest findings.
Deibert took a harsher stance on the Canadian company after his research team’s latest findings, telling CBC, “Canada is a country that’s defined by its values. This is a Canadian company headquartered here, we should expect more of Canadian companies — and the Canadian government, frankly.”