Websites for the Syrian government are being hosted in Canada, where sanctions were imposed after a Syrian crackdown on pro-democratic protesters.
Seventeen Syrian websites, including the government Ministries of Culture, Transport, and Social Affairs and Labour are hosted on web servers in Canada through intermediary companies, reported a study by the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research centre focused on digital media, global security and human rights.
The study found another dozen Syrian websites hosted in Germany and the U.S., which also have sanctions against Syria.
The United Nations estimates more than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria since last March, when President Bashar Assad began clamping down on Syrians who spoke out against his regime.
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Those actions have been condemned by many countries such as Canada and led them to impose stiff sanctions against Syria, including travel restrictions and freeze on assets.
In addition to the government websites, the Canadian-hosted Syrian sites also include Addounia TV, a Syrian station closely linked to the government regime and sanctioned by Europe and Canada for inciting violence, Deibert said.
"Now the websites should be taken down because they're in violation of the sanctions," he added.
Deibert noted that the web-hosting world is a bit of a "seamy, complex underworld" where transactions involve many intermediaries and "web hosting companies often don't even know who they're hosting."
In this case, the business transactions involved an intermediary company based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates called Platinum Incorporated, which Deibert described as "a front for the Syrian government and other organizations." The company says it has servers in Vancouver.
Deibert said web hosting companies need to engage in due diligence about who their customers are.
Freedom of speech concerns
However, the report cautioned that taking down any content from a website "must be treated as a potential infringement on freedom of speech and access to information."
In fact, Deibert said, lately web-hosting companies have been very quick to take down potentially controversial content.
"This has been used as a vehicle by big companies with law firms and special interest groups to engage in a kind of in formal censorship through vigilantism," he said.
He added that the Syrian websites needs to be handled with due process and accountability, but acknowledged that is tricky because there is no clear legal framework for dealing with something like this.
In addition to the Syrian websites, a website for the official media arm of Lebanese political party Hezbollah, is hosted on Canadian and U.S. based servers, the report found. It uses Canadian servers to stream its TV broadcast globally.
Canada currently classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization