Canadian tech company Netsweeper helped Bahrain censor websites, says report

Canadian technology company Netsweeper helped the Bahraini government to block opposition party websites, news websites and content critical of Islam, according to a new report.

Citizen Lab says government blocked access to political opposition, human rights groups, anti-Islam sites

An anti-government protester, seen in 2012, stands in front of riot police while photographing other demonstrators in Manama, Bahrain. The new report says Canadian company Netsweeper has been helping the Bahraini government to censor websites. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Canadian technology company Netsweeper helped the Bahraini government block opposition party websites, various news websites and content critical of Islam, according to a new report by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

The report, released early this morning by the internet surveillance research group, says the Waterloo-based company won a tender in January to provide a website filtering system for the Bahraini government.

Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab, said his team carried out a number of tests, both remotely and with help from people inside Bahrain, to see if Netsweeper's filtering technology was being used there. 

He said they were able to verify that the company's technology was present on several internet service providers in Bahrain in May and July.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that Netsweeper is being rolled out across the country of Bahrain," he said.

A filtering system can block any content that its administrators choose — it's commonly used in schools and libraries to restrict access to a wide range of websites.

But Deibert said he's raising the alarm because they found that the country is blocking access to a long list of websites that are critical of the government, including several media websites, sites affiliated with opposition groups, human rights and advocacy organizations, atheism websites, as well as pornography and gambling websites.

"Bahrain is one of the world's most autocratic countries," said Deibert. "There are major human rights violations in the country that will be further aggravated by implementing national-level internet censorship of this sort."

The United Nations considers the restriction of this kind of information to be a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Corporate responsibility

Deibert said his report also raises questions about corporate responsibility: Is Netsweeper benefiting financially by helping a country trample human rights?

"The fact that the company is located in Canada obviously puts them at odds with our country's position on human rights internationally," said Deibert.

Netsweeper's Chief Operations Officer Alain Gagne did not return CBC's request for a comment.

Some of the sites that have been censored include those of government opposition groups, human rights organizations, some media sites, and atheism websites. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

The company will soon participate in an international trade show in Dubai, called GITEX Technology Week. The Canadian government's Trade Commissioner Service, which falls under Global Affairs Canada, is promoting the event.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said it supports the promotion of human rights and free speech online. 

"We expect Canadian businesses to operate lawfully and according to Canadian values. We cannot comment on services provided to specific businesses due to commercial confidentiality," the organization said. 

In another report by the Citizen Lab, Deibert said Netsweeper has previously provided the government of Yemen with website-blocking technology.

In January, several months after the Citizen Lab released its Yemen report, Netsweeper filed a defamation suit against the group and the University of Toronto. However, it discontinued the suit in April.

Deibert said that it was only after the suit was dropped that his group felt comfortable publishing the Bahrain report.

Unrest since 2011

Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni monarchy, has seen several years of unrest after a failed anti-government, pro-democracy uprising in 2011.

According to the New York Times, the country's rulers have revoked citizenship of Shia leaders and other citizens who are critical of them. The Times says the country's police and security agencies have reputations of using excessive force.

In June, the country suspended all activities by the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the country's leading Shia opposition group.

The Citizen Lab's report found that Al Wefaq's websites were among those that were blocked.

In August, the UN urged the country to end what it called the "systematic harassment of the Shia population."

About the Author

Laura Wright

Laura Wright is an online reporter and editor for CBC News in Toronto. She previously worked for CBC North in Yellowknife.