Toronto, Canada (25 April 2018) — A new report by the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, investigates the global proliferation of Internet filtering systems manufactured by Netsweeper, a Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario. In addition to mapping worldwide country installations of this filtering technology, researchers focused on 10 countries presenting systemic human rights concerns and found widespread filtering of political, religious, and LGBTQ content.

Internet filtering technologies play a critical role in shaping access to information online, where software that inspects, manages, or blocks communications has become commonplace. When operated by repressive governments, this software can limit the ability of citizens to communicate freely and fully participate in digital spaces. Given this risk, Internet filtering companies have a responsibility to prevent or mitigate the adverse human rights impacts linked to their products and services.

Citizen Lab researchers scanned every one of the billions of IP addresses on the Internet to identify addresses that matched a signature researchers pinpointed as indicative of Netsweeper installations. Of the 30 countries where researchers identified Netsweeper installations, they focused on 10 that present systemic human rights concerns, the majority of which are considered authoritarian: Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen.

The report reveals that these countries use Netsweeper technology to censor access to a wide range of digital content protected by international legal frameworks. Examples of filtered content include media websites in Yemen, religious content in Bahrain, and political campaigns in the United Arab Emirates. Researchers also identified patterns of over-blocking and blocking as the result of mistaken categorization.

“Our report sheds light on the proliferation of Netsweeper’s Internet filtering systems and their use in countries with significant human rights issues to block a wide range of content, including LGBTQ and women’s health information. The provision of these services contradicts Canadian values and corporate social responsibility principles. Access to information is a human right recognized under international law — yet one that many governments defy in practice through extensive Internet censorship. 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.” – Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs

Researchers conclude that the deployment of Netsweeper technology documented in this report raises serious concerns regarding Netsweeper’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices and fulfillment of its responsibility to respect human rights. Netsweeper has not made public any human rights policy or due diligence practices adopted by the company and has not indicated whether it has taken any steps to identify, prevent, and mitigate adverse impacts of its technologies on human rights.

Likewise, the Government of Canada has important obligations under international law to protect human rights and has stated that it expects Canadian businesses working overseas to act in accordance with ethical standards and CSR practices. Yet, while Canada has taken a strong public stance in favour of protecting human rights online, Canadian government entities have simultaneously supported Netsweeper in trade promotion and development of its export sales to countries with questionable human rights policies and practices. Report authors offer recommendations to policy officials and lawmakers on how to better fulfill Canada’s obligations under international human rights law when it comes to the overseas operations of Canadian “dual-use” technology companies.

For Media Inquiries

Miles Kenyon
Communications Specialist, The Citizen Lab