A scathing report was published on September 21 by the Citizen Lab — an interdisciplinary research laboratory based in U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs — outlining how a Canadian company called Netsweeper has sold software to Bahrain that facilitates the country’s extreme limits of online expression and high levels of internet censorship. The contract between Newsweeper and Bahrain is worth roughly $1.2 million and was created earlier this year.
Using a research tool called Zmap, the Citizen Lab scanned the Internet and found that Netsweeper, a Waterloo-based company, had installations being used to filter highly censored countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and most recently, the Kingdom of Bahrain.
A Zmap scan is able to identify the exact equipment being used for censorship, since certain filtering systems have “the equivalent of digital signatures,” Professor Robert Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, explained in a blog post announcing the release of the report.
The report indicated that Netsweeper has been involved with Bahrain since January 2016, when the country issued a tender for bidding on a national-level Internet filtering system. Freedom House, a watchdog organization focused on civil liberties, reported that the citizens of the Kingdom of Bahrain have faced obstacles in accessing the Internet, limits on their content, and violations of user rights. Despite this, Internet access is widespread at Bahraini schools, universities, shopping malls, and coffee shops.
However, Bahrain’s Internet availability is strictly controlled by the government. During the anniversary of a national uprising on February 14, Bahrain’s Internet speed was reduced.
Along with controlling the speed, the government controls online content. In Bahrain, government agencies with the power to block websites without a court order include the Information Affairs Authority, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of State for Telecommunication.
Freedom House states, “IAA has blocked or shut down at least 1,000 websites, including human rights websites, blogs, online forums, and individual pages from social media networks.”
Between June 2014 and May 2015, at least 27 Bahraini citizens were arrested, detained, or prosecuted as a result of their online activity. For example, on February 10, 2015, social media activist Jaleela al-Sayed Ameen was detained while her house was raided and her electronics were confiscated. She was later reportedly taken to the prison hospital due to ill treatment during her interrogation.
In Canada, Netsweeper has the support of both the provincial and federal governments in trade shows. According to Canada’s Trade Commissioner, government involvement at these trade shows includes assistance with “business-to-business meetings” and “networking events,” as well as provision of a “pavilion/exhibit.”
In his blog post, Deibert commented on the need for government regulation surrounding censorship and surveillance companies like Netsweeper. He spoke of “corporate social responsibility” for companies, as well as the government enforcing “export controls.”
“Taking these steps would help better synchronize Canada’s economic and human rights policies while also bringing the world of Internet filtering in line with widely recognized principles on how businesses should respect human rights,” he wrote.
Netsweeper CEO Perry Roach did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment via his webpage.