Bahrain (Tasnim) – Researchers have identified a Canadian company at the center of a small Arab nation’s online censorship system – a finding that sits awkwardly with Ottawa officials’ public support for digital freedoms.
Specialists from internet watchdog Citizen Lab said in a report published Wednesday that web filtering firm Netsweeper Inc. is helping block news and opposition websites in Bahrain, a Persian Gulf Arab monarchy which has been wracked by unrest since pro-democracy protests were stifled there in 2011.
Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert said the discovery undermines Canadian leaders’ forceful condemnations of online censorship.
“Canadian policymakers have been quite vocal about saying that this is wrong,” Deibert said in a phone call ahead of the report’s release. “Yet here we have a Canadian company that’s doing precisely that.”
Netsweeper, based in the city of Guelph, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Toronto, did not return a call and other messages, the Associated Press reported.
In 2011, a company spokesman was quoted as saying there was “no good conversation for us to have” about allegations of censorship.
Netsweeper’s suspected role as Bahrain’s censorship provider first came to light after the firm appeared to win a contract for a “national website filtering solution” earlier this year. Researchers at Citizen Lab said they confirmed the company’s role there by scouring Bahrain’s internet space for Netsweeper installations and trying to access blocked sites from a server in the country.
Based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Citizen Lab has made a specialty of exposing the companies behind surveillance and censorship in the Middle East and beyond. Last month, its discovery of Israeli-made spy software targeting an Arab dissident’s iPhone prompted Apple to issue a worldwide security update. Citizen Lab has been tracking Netsweeper’s work for years.
Bahrain’s Information Ministry did not reply to emails seeking comment. Canadian officials – who are promoting an upcoming Dubai trade show which Netsweeper is supposed to attend – said in a statement that while they could not comment on specific companies, “we expect Canadian businesses to operate lawfully and according to Canadian values.”
This report prepared by Tasnim News.