FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Toronto, Canada (21 October 2015) — A Canadian Internet filtering company, Netsweeper, is blocking Internet content during armed conflict in Yemen following the dictates of the rebel group, the Houthis, according to a new report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
The report shows in detail Netsweeper technology is being used to filter critical political content, independent media websites, and all websites belonging to the Israeli (.il) top-level domain — a major expansion of Yemen’s censorship regime that was implemented following the takeover of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, by the Houthis in September 2014.
The Yemen armed conflict has expanded since 2014 to include a military response from a coalition of Arab states led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in September 2015 detailing the impact of the violence in Yemen, with over 1500 civilian casualties and widespread violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law.
“By continuing to provide services to YemenNet in the middle of a civil war and humanitarian crisis, and while a rebel group targeted by UN sanctions is in control, Netsweeper is a party to the armed conflict acting on behalf of one of the belligerents.” — Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab and Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto
The Shiite Islamic Houthis are one of many groups who have been fighting for power in the war-torn country of Yemen for many years. Their slogan (which the Citizen Lab report shows painted on the front gates of the country’s main ISP, YemenNet) is “Allah Akbar; Death to America, Death to Israel, A curse upon the Jews! Victory for Islam!” Citizen Lab says the only other country it can confirm blocks the entire .il Israeli top-level domain is Iran, one of the Houthis principal backers.
On October 9, 2015, Citizen Lab sent detailed questions to Netsweeper about their provision of services to YemenNet, their human rights policies, and whether the company undertakes any due diligence, and notified of them their intent to publish a report. They have included their letter to Netsweeper as an appendix to their report. As of the time of publication, the company had not replied to Citizen Lab.
“The company appears to have no policy or due diligence around human rights. Such an apparent lackadaisical attitude towards human rights and humanitarian law, and a motive entirely driven by shallow profit seeking, is unacceptable. Citizens worldwide expect more from companies.” — Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab and Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto
Citizen Lab notes the censoring of news and opinion related to the conflict undermines users’ rights under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to hold opinions without interference and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” The report also says that Netsweeper technology being employed to filter any content originating from an Israeli top-level domain, is “in blatant violation of international human rights law.”
Research for the Citizen Lab report was undertaken over 10 months, and included in country field research and highly detailed technical tests which referenced a wide spectrum of data. The researchers were able to determine that most of the political and local news content blocked by Netsweeper was undertaken in a non-transparent way, with fake network error pages delivered back to users instead of an explicit block pages. Beyond Internet censorship, the researchers also found manipulation of fuel supplies and disruptions to the electrical infrastructure are key ingredients of the armed conflict that aligned with the Houthis overall strategy of information denial in Yemen.
The Waterloo, Ontario-based Netsweeper has been the focus of prior Citizen Lab reports. Last year, the research group found Netsweeper providing services to ISPs in Somalia, a country without a functioning central government. Also in 2013, Citizen Lab released a report showing that Netsweeper services ISPs in Pakistan, a country that blocks access to a huge swath of Internet content, including all of Youtube.
Netsweeper’s provision of services to Yemen itself has connections to prior Citizen Lab research. As part of the OpenNet Initiative project in 2009, Citizen Lab found the US company Websense was providing services to Yemen’s ISPs. After the OpenNet Initiative publication, Websense withdrew its services and issued an anti-censorship policy. A follow-up by the OpenNet Initiative later found that Netsweeper stepped in.
“This is a company that has a poor track record working for rogue regimes and in war-racked settings, and seemingly no regret about it either.” — Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab and Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
Although Netsweeper’s provision of services to YemenNet is not a violation of sanctions nor is it illegal in Canada, Deibert believes the Canadian government could do still do more to set the standards of acceptable behavior for companies that export censorship and surveillance technologies.
“Now that we have a new government in Canada, it’s a fresh opportunity for new leadership to set ethical standards around human rights online that Canadian companies should follow.” — Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab.
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